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Obermayer law firm fires Rotwitt

Jeffrey B. Rotwitt, the lawyer who earned fees on both sides of a deal to build a new Family Court building in Center City, was fired Thursday by his law firm.

Jeffrey B. Rotwitt, the lawyer who earned fees on both sides of a deal to build a new Family Court building in Center City, was fired Thursday by his law firm.

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P. announced the firing a day after Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille killed Rotwitt's deal to develop a $200 million Family Court tower at 15th and Arch Streets.

The project is still moving forward, with the state serving as developer. But there is no way of telling whether the state will recover any of the millions in fees paid to Rotwitt and his partner, Conshohocken developer Donald W. Pulver.

"We have to figure out who got paid what," Castille said in an interview Thursday. "Our lawyers are going to get to the bottom of that. We will take the appropriate action when we learn the facts."

Rotwitt had spent 35 years at Obermayer, a Philadelphia firm with 125 lawyers that has long been a big-money player in Pennsylvania politics. Last year, the firm contributed $175,000 to statewide campaigns.

Rotwitt has said in recent interviews that he has done nothing wrong. He said he had become a codeveloper of the Family Court building with Pulver only after his work to find sites for Castille ended.

He said he had been up-front and open about his involvement in the project and was being made a scapegoat. He has also said he was paid not as a lawyer by the courts, but as a broker.

Then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman hired Rotwitt in 2006 to find a site for a courthouse to consolidate Family Court operations in Philadelphia. Originally, Rotwitt was supposed to be paid a commission after a deal was done.

But after Newman left the court, Castille in 2008 signed off on a $3.9 million fee for Rotwitt, and the courts started paying $55,000 monthly installment to him. Obermayer already has received about $1.3 million.

But Rotwitt also has earned about $500,000 in additional fees as a codeveloper on the project in a handshake deal with Pulver, who now also wants to distance himself from the lawyer.

Pulver sent Rotwitt a letter Thursday ending his partnership with Rotwitt's Deilwydd Property Group F.C. L.L.C.

Obermayer's partners say Rotwitt never told them that he had a deal with Pulver to codevelop the Family Court building.

"The management committee had no knowledge of Mr. Rotwitt's involvement as a developer of the proposed Philadelphia Family Court Facility until the investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer," the firm said in a brief statement.

Castille also said he had not known Rotwitt was a codeveloper until The Inquirer reported it.

"If he's collecting money on the side, I don't think I'd be too happy," Castille said of Obermayer's decision to fire Rotwitt.

"The guy's grabbing a half-million dollars that should have gone to the law firm," he said.

But Rotwitt said everyone had known about his deal with Pulver - Castille, other court administrators, the court's lawyers, major development firms, and particularly his partners at Obermayer.

"The record is clear," Rotwitt said in an interview last week.

"The world of the city knows it. . . . The realty community, the construction community, the design community, minutes of meetings, drafts of documents, signed documents, it goes on and on and on," he said.

Rotwitt, 59, owns the Kixx indoor soccer team and is a partner in a $85 million deal - backed by $10 million in state funding - to build a movie studio in Chester Township.

Involved in a number of other high-profile real estate transactions, Rotwitt was a member of Obermayer's management committee and its biggest earner, said his spokesman, Kevin Feeley.

"I think Jeff's view is, in light of all the publicity over the past week, he understands the firm's decision," Feeley said.

Rotwitt has provided copies of documents that he sent to the courts stating that his firm was codeveloper of the Family Court building. He also acknowledged that he was codeveloper in the interview with The Inquirer last month that triggered the controversy.

Rotwitt and Obermayer in 2003 were involved in another unusual real estate deal - this one the subject of a critical state grand jury report.

In early 2003, Haverford Township commissioners were looking for help in finding a developer for the 212-acre site of the old Haverford State Hospital. A faction of the board, meeting in secret, decided to hire Rotwitt and Obermayer, according to the grand jury report.

The terms: Obermayer would receive $7,500 a month and 6 percent of the sale when the deal closed. Rotwitt sent developers requests for proposals, and the board eventually made a deal for $30.6 million.

That meant Obermayer and Rotwitt were due a fee of $1.8 million. But Obermayer chairman Martin Weinberg, a onetime mayoral candidate in Philadelphia, didn't want to wait for the money, the report says, and told Rotwitt to press for an advance payment before the end of 2003. Without any public vote, commissioners decided to pay Obermayer $600,000.

After the payment surfaced, Rotwitt and Obermayer gave the money back. Rotwitt says that money was not an advance on the fee but payment for other legal work on the project; the grand jury report calls that "a ruse."

Rotwitt told investigators that he had been "betrayed - not knowingly - by the knuckleheads" who ran the Township Commission.

"I suffered for their mistake," he said.

Weinberg did not return requests for comment.

Weinberg and Newman, the former justice, began dating five months after she hired Rotwitt in 2006. They married at the beginning of 2007, and the marriage was annulled later that year.

Newman has said her personal ties to the firm had nothing to do with her decision to retain Rotwitt.