Montco's Steele thrust in spotlight

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Kevin Steele, Montgomery County's district attorney, is said to be more comfortable in the background.

As he stood behind a podium to announce charges against Bill Cosby, Kevin Steele was not yet the Montgomery County District Attorney.

But it was perhaps the biggest announcement of his career.

Still, Steele stuck to a script, cutting off questions after 10 minutes. Later, he sent another prosecutor to represent the office at Cosby's arraignment, the first hearing in the case.

It was clear he was a man with a lot on his plate.

Formally sworn in last Monday, Steele is a quiet career prosecutor who colleagues say is more comfortable in the background than the spotlight.

But timing is everything.

In taking the office, Steele did more than just assume one of the region's highest-profile law enforcement jobs - one that helped his predecessors cultivate statewide reputations but also drew equal attention to any missteps.

Steele, 48, now is responsible for two of the most notorious cases brought in county history: the sexual assault prosecution against Bill Cosby and the perjury case against Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Already, his name has been splashed from coast to coast. Within days of Cosby's being charged, lawyers for the comedian used appearances on national news shows to accuse Steele of ginning up the charges to win election last fall. And Kane, the embattled attorney general, has been relentless in attacking the allegations against her, and the people who bring them.

"I don't know of another district attorney who has walked into two bigger cases on his first day on the job," said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, who was Steele's first boss when he was a young prosecutor in Harrisburg.

Since that time, Steele has spent 20 years quietly working cases in Montgomery County.

His colleagues and courtroom opponents describe him as a prosecutor much more enthusiastic about his work in the courtroom than the political aspects of his new job.

"His personality comes across as a very laid-back person, somebody who is easy to approach," said Adams County District Attorney Brian Sinnett. "His professional side is far different. . . . He is a very zealous prosecutor."

At recent court hearings for Kane, who faces felony counts of perjury for allegedly leaking secret grand information and lying about it, Steele has been quiet but serious in the courtroom, taking few questions afterward from reporters.

He hates standing in front of cameras, former district attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

"If he could have figured out how to be D.A. and not ever have to run for it, that would be great," said Ferman, who now is a county judge. "He is so uncomfortable politically."

Steele has not yet appointed a first assistant. Many district attorneys in the largest counties often leave trials to their assistants, but he has not yet said whether he will personally prosecute Kane or Cosby. "From what I see, he's very proud about his own work and finds it hard to delegate significant matters," said Thomas C. Egan III, a defense lawyer who regularly argues cases at the county courthouse in Norristown.

Steele, a Lower Merion father of three, last summer became president of the Pennsylvania State University Alumni Association - the largest alumni association in the country.

When the association needed to recruit volunteers for board and committee positions, Steele could have sought help.

Instead, Steele, a graduate of Penn State's law school, "made individual calls to people," said Rodney Kirsch, Penn State's senior vice president for development and alumni relations. "And I'm not talking about one or two calls, but 15 or 20 calls to get people."

His prosecutions in Montgomery County include winning a 2014 conviction for Raghunandan Yandamuri, who is now on death row for killing a grandmother and her 10-month-old granddaughter in King of Prussia.

Known for forming bonds with victims' families, Steele in 2012 used vacation time to go to Adams County to assist prosecutors with a death-penalty trial for a man accused of killing a Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer in 2010. He and then-Adams County District Attorney Shawn Wagner won a national award after winning the case.

"I've seen him moved to the point of shedding tears in advocating on behalf of a victim," said Egan, recalling a case in which Steele pushed for the death penalty for a man convicted of raping and killing his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter.

As the alumni association confronted how to react to the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, Steele helped guide the group to its decision - which became not taking an official position, said Steve Wagman, the association's vice president.

Steele "mediated many discussions on keeping a level head," Wagman said. "He's a no-nonsense, straight-shooter kind of individual."

Such an image, however, is likely to come under attack with the big cases looming in Norristown.

Less than a day after his Cosby news conference, defense lawyers publicly accused Steele of reviving the decade-old case against the 78-year-old entertainer for political reasons - to win his race against Bruce L. Castor Jr., a county commissioner and former district attorney trying to regain the seat.

After a sleepy start to the race, Steele, a Democrat, last fall ran television ads questioning Castor's decision not to prosecute Cosby.

The current case is based on the same allegations that former Temple University employee Andrea Constand first lodged in 2005, when Castor ran the office but concluded that the evidence was insufficient.

Other factors have since emerged - including similar accusations brought by dozens of women, and the partial release of a deposition in which Cosby described his encounter with Constand.

Still, Cosby spokeswoman Monique Pressley has pointed to the Steele ads in an attempt to discredit the case. "We expect the D.A., who is highly motivated, who is fulfilling a campaign promise . . . is going to do whatever he can to convince a judge to consider all types of evidence that do not belong in court," she said.

Steele has not spoken publicly about the case since filing the charges. Asked Wednesday why he chose to arrest Cosby, paving the way for a blockbuster celebrity trial, he said only: "This job is simply about doing the right thing."

lmccrystal@phillynews.com