Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the Ballard Spahr lawyer who has become a top choice for clients involved in sensitive investigations, has landed another dicey assignment - one that could cast his own firm in a critical light.
Hockeimer is the point man in a review by Ballard Spahr of alleged conflicts in the proposed development of a $200 million Family Court building in Philadelphia.
The legitimacy of the project came into question late last week when The Inquirer reported that a lawyer appointed by the state Supreme Court to select a site for the project also was a partner of the developer, raising concerns of conflicts.
The potential problem for Ballard Spahr is that its own lawyers had served as real estate counsel to the project but had failed to flag the potential conflict of lawyer Jeffrey Rotwitt.
Rotwitt initially had been selected by the Supreme Court to find a site for the project, and eventually partnered with the project's developer, Donald Pulver.
"A lot depends on what they were hired to do the first time," said Stefanos Bibas, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, regarding Ballard Spahr's involvement. If the original scope of the engagement called for the firm to monitor project conflicts, "that would raise yellow flags."
High-stakes investigations that invite intense public scrutiny are nothing new to Hockeimer.
His institutional clients in the recent past have included the board of Philadelphia Academy Charter School, which hired him to root out fraud and mismanagement, and the Lower Merion School District, which hired Hockeimer and his team from Ballard Spahr to probe the student-laptop monitoring scandal.
"He did precisely what was needed; it was his thoroughness and his ability to get to the heart of the matter," said Joseph Resta, a former board member of the Philadelphia Academy Charter School.
David Ebby, Lower Merion school board president and a partner at Drinker, Biddle & Reath L.L.P., said Hockeimer's background as a former federal prosecutor was especially helpful when the district was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia as part of its probe of the "webcamgate" scandal.
Hockeimer's approach was calm and methodical, even as the district became the center of a media maelstrom, Ebby said.
"The U.S. attorney dumped a subpoena on us; that is a horrendous thing for a school district," Ebby said. "To have a guy like that is both calming and crucial."
Hockeimer's clients make for a classic white-collar defense practice. They are often institutions that learn of internal problems and hire lawyers like Hockeimer to find out how much trouble they might be in.
"The most important thing for many clients facing this sort of situation is to learn the facts, to have someone who can develop what the facts are and ultimately discuss the matter" with authorities, said Hockeimer, 47, who declined to discuss the Family Court matter.
Ballard Spahr lawyers, who have served as real estate counsel to the project since 2008, said they never became aware of the potential conflict because Rotwitt never disclosed it, as he was required to do under legal ethics rules. Among the Ballard lawyers who served as real estate counsel is John Estey, former chief of staff to Gov. Rendell. The firm said that Hockeimer became involved in the matter last week, and only to help sort out the conflict issue.
Rotwitt, of the firm of Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel L.L.C., became a codeveloper in the project while representing the courts in trying to find a site, raising questions about whether he was favoring his interests over the court's.
Rotwitt contends that he disclosed his development interest early on, although that is disputed by Ballard and Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille.
"No one has been forthcoming; what we have gotten back are non-answers to our questions," said Adrian King Jr., one of the Ballard lawyers, regarding attempts to obtain information from Rotwitt and the developer, Pulver.
Hockeimer was born in Abington and moved to the Midwest with his family when he was young. He studied law at Catholic University in Washington and, following graduation, won a clerkship with a federal district court judge in Virginia, James Cacheris, the brother of a high-profile Washington-based defense lawyer named Plato Cacheris.
He started in private practice in 1990 as an associate lawyer at the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, where he was an understudy to noted criminal defense lawyer Reid Weingarten.
Weingarten's clients compose the creme de la creme of senior public- and private-sector officials in trouble, and have included the late U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and former Teamsters Union head Ron Carey, among others.
Hockeimer got to help out on some of those cases, notably the defense of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was acquitted at trial of accepting improper gifts and favors.
Hockeimer left Steptoe in 1995 to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City, where he prosecuted a string of financial fraud cases against domestic terrorism groups.
From there, it was back to the Philadelphia region in 2000. Hockeimer became a partner at the firm of Hangley, Aronchick, Segal & Pudlin. He lives in Narberth with his wife and two sons, ages 19 and 8.
After moving to Center City-based Ballard, he joined one of the region's best known white-collar defense groups, and a firm with political clout.
Its former partners include Gov. Rendell, who joined the firm after he had stepped down as mayor but before he took office as governor, and David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, a Rendell protege and former chairman of the firm.
Its white-collar defense practice comprises some 20 lawyers, and includes Don Goldberg, one of the city's best-known defense attorneys.
The practice is chaired by Ronald Sarachan, the former chief of the major crimes division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, and covers everything from defense of political fund-raisers to firms accused by the Justice Department of foreign bribery schemes.
An ideal client mix, in other words, for a former prosecutor like Hockeimer.
"He's as straight as they come," said William Hangley, name partner at Hangley, Aronchick, Segal & Pudlin, where Hockeimer was a partner before moving to Ballard Spahr. "He is very well liked."