Lingering conflict over Family Court building

Sandra Schultz Newman, Raymond G. Perelman (center) and Aramark chairman Joseph Neubauer at the gala opening of the new Barnes Museum.
Sandra Schultz Newman, Raymond G. Perelman (center) and Aramark chairman Joseph Neubauer at the gala opening of the new Barnes Museum. (Philadelphia Public Record)
Posted: July 03, 2012

In a standoff between legal titans, feared and famed Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague has been trying for six months to force former state Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman to face him in a deposition.

Newman has not been exactly eager to answer questions about her early role in the imbroglio over building a $200 million Family Court building.

Sprague, 86, said in a recent pleading that he knew why: Her lawyer, Gene D. Cohen, had been overheard saying he was waiting for Sprague to die.

Cohen, a former Common Pleas Court judge, laughed when asked about the allegation. "I never said that," he said.

Asked why he had not rebutted the allegation in legal filings, he said, "To me, it was an irrelevant remark, and there was no need to respond."

The skirmishing among some of the state's most powerful figures has intrigued and amused Philadelphia's legal community.

Sprague's client is Ronald D. Castille, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who alleges that he and Philadelphia court administrators were hoodwinked by lawyer Jeffrey Rotwitt, whom Newman, while still a justice, hired to scout out a site for the building.

Rotwitt ended up on both sides of the transaction, representing the high court and becoming co-developer of the project, earning fees from each party.

At first, Cohen said, Newman's "many personal and professional commitments" made her unavailable to sit for Sprague's deposition.

Then, Cohen said Newman's December vacation got in the way. After that, she claimed was tied up in preparing for confirmation hearings for a post on the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, according to court filings.

For the last several months, Cohen has said an undisclosed illness has prevented her appearance.

Whatever Newman's sickness might be, it did not stop her from showing up May 18 at one of Philadelphia's top social events, the gala opening of the new Barnes Museum. A photo of her chatting with wealthy philanthropist Raymond G. Perelman and Aramark chairman Joseph Neubauer at the gala is posted at the website of the Philadelphia Public Record paper.

Cohen declined to identify Newman's ailment, saying he did not want to violate her privacy. He said that the fact that she could attend a two-hour party had no bearing on whether she was medically up to days of depositions. He said of the Barnes gala, "Going to that event is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Sprague appeared to gain the upper hand last week when a state judge laid down the law: Newman must appear for Sprague's interrogation over four days starting July 11.

"If Justice Newman's health permits, we'll comply," said Cohen, who said he was awaiting the latest medical report on the justice, who visited her doctor on Friday.

Before Common Pleas Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled Thursday, Sprague and a colleague in his office, Joseph R. Podraza Jr., had been trying to batter down Newman's claims that illness prevented her from showing up for a deposition. They had been demanding that a judge order that an independent doctor consult her medical records and examine her.

In one recent filing, Sprague said Newman had shown "inexcusable bad faith" by dodging any deposition.

Cohen called the comment "obvious hyperbole."

Sprague and Podraza declined interviews Friday, but Sprague did issue a brief statement:

"Since it's been reported to me that Justice Newman's lawyer, Gene Cohen, said I'd be dead before I take Justice Newman's deposition, and the court has now ordered the deposition to commence on July 11, I'll be sure to take very good care of my health between now and then."

Although an octogenarian, Sprague remains one of Philadelphia's busiest lawyers. He is also president judge emeritus of the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline.

Newman is formidable, too, and perhaps just as politically connected. In her middle 70s, she has been practicing law for four decades. Now in private practice, she spent a dozen years on the state Commonwealth and Supreme Court benches.

In the current case, Castille says that Rotwitt acted secretly to put himself on both side of the deal. Rotwitt and his former law firm, Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel stood, to earn $6.5 million from the two roles.

Rotwitt says he did nothing wrong. He says that he kept Castille informed of his changing roles and that his position as co-developer posed no conflict because he took it on only after finding the site.

Obermayer fired him after the controversy broke, but they are lumped in together as defendants in the case.

After The Inquirer published an investigative story in May 2010 detailing Rotwitt's two hats, Castille shut the Family Court project down and, in late 2011, had Sprague bring the lawsuit against Rotwitt and Obermayer. The Family Court project was later relaunched, and the new facility is now under construction at 15th and Arch Streets, at a cost that has been reduced by tens of millions of dollars.

Newman, a divorce lawyer before she became an appellate judge, was a driving force in the effort to built a new Family Court building, a place to hear domestic matters and cases involving juveniles accused of crimes or facing abuse. As a justice, she was assigned to serve as liaison to the Philadelphia court. In that role, she hired Rotwitt in early 2006 to find a site.

Then, two years later, as Rotwitt's firm appeared close to a million-dollar-plus payday, Newman - by then off the bench, having hit the mandatory retirement age of 70 - sought to see that some of the money went to her son, a former Obermayer lawyer.

In an e-mail to Rotwitt later disclosed by The Inquirer, Newman wrote hat her son, Jonathan Newman, who was of counsel to Obermayer, had introduced her to Rotwitt and thus should get financial credit for bringing the deal to the firm. "He brought you the case with my being present," Newman wrote. "I had never heard your name."

"I trust you will do the right thing by Jonathan," she said, according to the e-mail.

Jonathan Newman, well known in the last decade as chairman of the state Liquor Control Board until 2007, has said he took no money out of the project and had not known about his mother's e-mail.

Sandra Newman married Martin Weinberg, Obermayer's chairman, in 2007, but the marriage lasted less than a year. She was previously married to Julius Newman, a well-known plastic surgeon known as "Dr. Nose," who died in 2005.

In the deposition, Sprague will seek to explore the details of Newman's involvement, which some critics said smacked of a maneuver to help her family. Newman has denied that.

Sprague is also demanding that she turn over any Family Court building documents she might have, including any dealing with her son.

In any deposition, lawyers for Rotwitt and Obermayer will also quiz Newman.

In the lawsuit, brought by the courts of Philadelphia with Castille as their trustee, Sprague first subpoenaed Newman to come to his office to be questioned on Dec. 13.

Cohen replied that his client's personal and work obligations blocked her from attending that day. He also said she would be on vacation in December and tied up in January because Gov. Corbett had nominated her to serve on the state Securities Commission.

After making the rounds of state senators in Harrisburg - who must approve such appointments - Newman withdrew from the running for that post.

Corbett's staff said Friday that he had withdrawn her nomination on March 2 "because she was not able to pursue the nomination at the time for personal reasons." No specific reason was given in the statement.

Cohen later agreed that the deposition would take place in late February, court records show. This did not take place after Cohen faxed Sprague a letter saying Newman was ill and would be unable to face questioning until "some time in April."

In April, Cohen filed a legal motion arguing that she should not have to respond to questions in any event because she had immunity for matters she conducted as a Supreme Court justice. In an order, Wettick largely rejected that argument, pointing out that she had already talked with The Inquirer about the flap.

The judge set May 1 as a date for the deposition, but again Cohen said Newman was too sick to attend. In late April, Cohen had sent copies of a medical report concerning Newman to the judge and Sprague. In a filing, Sprague said he had kept the contents of this confidential, not even telling fellow lawyers in his firm.

By May 18, Newman was able to attend the Barnes gala.

On Thursday, Cohen told Wettick that she was to meet again with her doctor Friday and that he would forward a new confidential medical status report to the judge and Sprague.

But by then, Wettick, a judge from the Pittsburgh area brought in to hear the case, had had enough. He issued his new, tougher order for the round of depositions to start July 11.

He said Newman would have to answer questions for three hours each of the four days. She will be permitted a 30-minute break each day.


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

 

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