Published June 10, 2010
As Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille has hired a new attorney to review the structure of the Philadelphia Family Court deal, the nature of the role of the attorney who represented the court both as a tenant representative and later became a codeveloper in the deal has become murkier.
In an interview Wednesday, Philadelphia President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe said that after she was elected as president judge in November 2008 she remembers talking to Jeffrey B. Rotwitt, the court’s former tenant representative, and asking whether she should get involved in the planning of a new home for the Family Court because of "very different worldview[s]" held by Mayor Michael A. Nutter and Gov. Edward G. Rendell on the future of 1801 Vine St., the current site of the Family Court’s juvenile branch. The 1801 Vine St. courthouse, a building modeled along with the Central Free Library of Philadelphia after buildings on Paris’ Place de la Concorde, is now slated to be developed into a hotel and museum.
"Mr. Rotwitt said that it would probably be best not to have another spoon in the pot," the judge said. She chose not to become involved.
Dembe said that the difference between Rendell and Nutter centered on whether the money from selling and developing 1801 Vine St. would be folded into the Family Court or if it would be sold and developed with the money to go to the city. Until the future of 1801 Vine St. was worked out, Dembe said Rendell was not going to release $200 million in capital funds approved by the General Assembly.
Rotwitt’s "work was not exclusively about the acquisition of the new site," Dembe said.
Dembe said that she did not know Rotwitt was a codeveloper with Pulver on the courthouse. Dembe also said that she doesn’t know the facts of Rotwitt’s initial involvement in the project because that was before she became president judge and became more involved in the project.
Dembe’s account appears to conflict with comments Rotwitt has made that his work with the courts had concluded before he became a codeveloper on the deal. Rotwitt spokesman Kevin Feeley declined to comment and Rotwitt’s attorney, Catherine M. Recker of Welsh & Recker, wasn’t immediately able to comment late Wednesday evening.
Rotwitt told the The Philadelphia Inquirer, which broke the story in May on Rotwitt’s dualroles as a codeveloper and the court’s lawyer, that his work for the courts was completed by the time he agreed with developer Donald W. Pulver, president of Northwest 15th Street Associates, sometime in early 2008 in a handshake deal to be codevelopers and split development fees 50-50.
Mark Nevins, Pulver’s spokesman, said that Pulver took the steps necessary to alert governmental leaders that Rotwitt was a codeveloper on the project and it was left up to Rotwitt to inform the people he needed to inform.
The legal arrangements underlying the development of the Family Court facility have frayed in the wake of The Inquirer’s reporting that Rotwitt, who was retained by the court system to search for building locations and as a tenant representative, ended up on the other side of the project by striking a feesharing deal with Pulver. Pulver and Rotwitt have said that court leaders were aware of Rotwitt’s involvement in both sides of the deal, while Castille, the liaison justice to the Philadelphia courts who has made building a new Philadelphia family court a top priority, said he did not know about the arrangement.
Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety and one of the Nutter administration’s point people on the project, said in an interview in April that the administration wanted to handle the future of 1801 Vine St. separately from the plan to construct a new unified courthouse for the court’s domestic relations and juvenile branches at 15th and Arch streets.
Gary Tuma, Rendell’s press secretary, said the city will be issuing a request for proposal for the development of 1801 Vine St. as a hotel and museum, and the city will control how the building is developed. "We are not aware of any disagreement between them and us in that regard," Tuma said.
NEW EYES FOR REVIEW
In a separate development, Castille announced that he has engaged William G. Chadwick, who was Castille’s first deputy when Castille was Philadelphia District Attorney and now has a consulting firm, to complete a review of the courthouse’s pre-construction development. Chadwick is replacing Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. of Ballard Spahr, who started conducting a review of the deal on behalf of Castille. However, Castille said in a news release that Chadwick was being retained to avoid an appearance of confl ict of interest by having an attorney from Ballard Spahr, which was previously retained by the courts to work on the Family Court deal, conduct the review of the deal.
Chadwick said his firm will develop a full accounting of the project and a chronology of the project. The firm also will analyze the structure of the transaction, the compensation provided under the transaction, and any confl icts of interests, he said.
The firm also will identify and quantify any potential legal claims the court may have, Chadwick said.
Chadwick said his firm will be conducting an "objective review" and, despite having worked for Castille, he said that his reputation refl ects "the integrity of the work product I produce. Basically, the results will speak for themselves and will be subjected in some way to public scrutiny. We intend to move forward with transparency."
Gene Cohen, a former Philadelphia Common Pleas judge, said that "Chadwick has an impeccable reputation and there are no apparent confl icts in his selection."
There is continued wrangling over the future of the legal rights to 15th and Arch streets. The site is owned underground by the Philadelphia Parking Authority and owned above ground by private developer Pulver.
Under the land deal, Pulver got air rights to 15th and Arch streets in exchange for a mortgage with the parking authority, which was backed by the consideration of Pulver’s obligation to build an underground parking garage, as well as the obligation to pay for a maintenance fund for the parking garage, according to interviews.
The parking authority says that the developer is in default of the mortgage for the air rights and it expects to move to seek the return of the deed for the air rights.
The parking authority says Pulver is in default because Northwest did not reach a development agreement with the courts by the end of 2009 and by failing to reach a reciprocal easement agreement with the parking authority.
Northwest’s position is that it did reach a development agreement with the courts. Northwest also argues it is ready and willing to execute the easement agreement.
Pulver said that he may pursue other tenants for the property besides the First Judicial District, while the parking authority says that Northwest can’t easily go to another tenant because one of the most recent amendments to the mortgage between Northwest and the parking authority was the requirement that Northwest reach a development agreement with the court.
The state Department of General Services has now entered the scene as the proposed developer of the project. If the parking authority regains the deed to the air rights at 15th and Arch streets, then the parking authority contemplates entering a similar arrangement with DGS.
Dembe said she expects the project to proceed to a ground-breaking later this year with DGS as the developer.
"We’ve got the land. We’ve got the zoning. We’ve got the money," Dembe said.
The building is expected to have a three Year construction time line, she said.