A convicted killer becomes an advisor to a prison system. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.
But it’s no laughing matter in Montgomery County.
In 1985, Vernon Steed shot and killed Serena Gibson, an innocent bystander who was with her family nearby when he fired at a fellow criminal in a drug dispute.
In 2022, Montgomery County Commissioners made Steed a member of the Prison Board of Inspectors, a citizen oversight committee.
Now Steed, 55, is back behind bars, accused of stealing some $95,000 in public-assistance funds by filing phony paperwork using the names of his friends and relatives.
Concerned citizens are asking why elected county officials would appoint a criminal like Steed to a county board. But nobody is willing to say just how he came to the position in the first place, even after his arrest last month.
Joseph Gale, the lone Republican on the county Board of Commissioners, strongly opposed Steed’s appointment. When asked how Steed ended up on the board in the first place—whether he sought out the position or was actively recruited by the county’s Democratic commissioners—Gale said he didn’t know.
“You would have to ask the commissioners who voted for him if they encouraged him to apply,” he told DVJournal. “I certainly didn’t ask him to seek the position; I voted against his appointment.”
County commissioner and board chair Kenneth E. Lawrence, Jr. did not respond to questions about the circumstances surrounding Steed’s appointment. Nor did former commissioner Valerie Arkoosh, who was on the county board at the time of Steed’s appointment and who is now the acting secretary of the state human services department.
At the time, Arkoosh made her support of Steed’s appointment clear.
“I just want to comment that I do intend to support Mr. Steed’s appointment. That he will bring an individual to the Prison Board of Inspectors with lived experience. And I think that will be an extremely important perspective to have as part of our county Prison Board of Inspectors.”
“DHS has no comment,” spokeswoman Ali Fogarty told DVJournal.
Asked about Steed’s appointment, county spokeswoman Kelly Cofrancisco said the system worked as designed. “The commissioners review all applicants for volunteer board positions and make appointments through official action during their board meetings,” she said.
She previously told DVJournal last month the county “continues to support applicants from all backgrounds to apply to serve on Montgomery County boards and commissions in a volunteer capacity.”
“The county remains committed to appointing residents with lived experience and diverse perspectives to serve in these positions,” she added.
The county invites interested applicants to apply for the prison inspector board on its website.
The board is “unique in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the county says, calling it “a citizens’ oversight board for the humane treatment of Montgomery County incarcerated individuals” and one that “maintains oversight of Prison operations.”
Board inspections “provide a sounding board for incarcerated individuals,” the county’s website says, while board members “are there to notice any particular patterns or needs such as upgrading the telephone system or implementing tablets with access to the internet.”
Board members also perform “administrative duties, oversight of personnel, expenditures, and other budgetary items.”
Steed’s criminal history at the time of his appointment last year had been touted as a bona fide supporting his candidacy. He was expected to bring “lived experience” to the board, Arkoosh said during deliberations. She called it “an extremely important perspective to have as part of our county Prison Board of Inspectors.”
Gale retorted, “The lived experience that this individual brings is 32 years in state prison for murder.” Following Steed’s recent arrest, he called the scandal “unacceptable and embarrassing.”
“It was an absolute disgrace for the Democrat County Commissioners to appoint a convicted murderer to the Prison Board of Inspectors in the first place,” he said.
“Now, less than a year later, their decision to override my opposition has proven to be a grave error in judgment, which jeopardized the safety and welfare of many,” Gale added.
Steed is accused of stealing nearly $100,000 in COVID-19 emergency funds by using other people’s names to apply for the money.