Ex-Justice Newman refuses questioning on Family Court

Posted: July 13, 2012

She showed up. She didn't complain about her health.

But Sandra Schultz Newman, a former justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, still refused Wednesday to answer questions about her involvement with a botched plan to build a new $200 million Family Court building in Philadelphia.

For six months, Newman had avoided answering questions from lawyer Richard A. Sprague, citing variously her busy personal and civic life, her winter vacation, and an unspecified sickness. But a judge had appeared to put an end to the delay in ordering her to undergo four days of depositions, starting Wednesday.

Facing Sprague, she again declined to answer questions, saying she was immune to them because they involved matters undertaken in her role as a Supreme Court justice, according to people familiar with the latest effort to get her to talk.

She also refused to turn over thousands of pages of documents, citing the same privilege.

Newman and her lawyer, Gene D. Cohen, asserted what they called a "deliberative process privilege" even after the judge in the case, reached via speakerphone, rejected that argument and ordered her to answer, the sources said.

Cohen told Common Pleas Court Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. that he would appeal the order. As for Sprague, the sources said, he suggested he would seek to have Newman held in contempt.

In a fight among legal heavyweights, Sprague had been seeking to interview Newman to gather evidence in a civil suit alleging that top court administrators, notably Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, were hoodwinked during the campaign to find a site for the new Family Court facility.

Sprague says Castille was misled by lawyer Jeffrey Rotwitt, who ended up on both sides of the transaction, representing the high court and becoming codeveloper of the project, earning fees from each party. Rotwitt has said that all parties knew about the arrangement and that he did nothing wrong.

It was Newman who, while on the high court, first hired Rotwitt to scout out a site for the building. And later, it was Newman who - after stepping down as a justice - pressed to make sure that her son would get paid in connection with the project.

In an e-mail to Rotwitt later disclosed by The Inquirer, Newman wrote that her son, Jonathan, who worked at the same law firm as Rotwitt, 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," she wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail filed in the lawsuit.

"I also understand that you will be getting a 'fee' from the builders. I trust you will do the right thing by Jonathan."

Jonathan Newman, well known for his wine recommendations 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.

Sprague, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has been seeking to question Sandra Newman since December.

Cohen did not return telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

In April, Cohen also filed a brief asking Wettick to rule that Newman was immune from questioning about her "deliberations concerning the Family Court project."

Wettick, a judge from the Pittsburgh area brought in to hear the civil suit, rejected the argument.

In an April 23 ruling, he said the suit involved real estate, not Newman's legal rulings. Wettick said the deliberative privilege did not apply - especially, he added, because Newman had already spoken about the building flap to The Inquirer.

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

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