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Castille had front seat in court fiasco

It seems a little late for Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille to try to figure out how $12 million in public money was spent on a new Family Court facility he was overseeing.

It seems a little late for Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille to try to figure out how $12 million in public money was spent on a new Family Court facility he was overseeing.

Don't get me wrong. If tax dollars were misspent or misappropriated, there should be an effort to recoup the funds. But the rush now to create a paper trail rings hollow.

Castille has been deeply involved in the $200 million project for several years. During that time, millions of dollars in fees were doled out. Several million went to Castille's point person on the project, Jeffrey B. Rotwitt. Another chunk went to the developer, Donald W. Pulver. Still more went to consultants and architects.

The court should have invoices that detail what work was done and when. Likewise, someone at the court had to approve the invoices before the checks were cut. The court should have those documents in hand.

Instead, Castille has hired a lawyer from Ballard Spahr L.L.P. to gather the receipts. Never mind that Castille previously hired Ballard Spahr to do almost $500,000 in legal work on the project. Ballard says there's no conflict. That's a tough needle to thread.

It's even more disingenuous that Castille sprang into action only after The Inquirer detailed all the cozy connections and unusual twists in the project.

At the center of the controversy is Rotwitt, a lawyer at Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell & Hippel L.L.P. He represented the court in efforts to find a location to build a new Family Court building in Philadelphia. Rotwitt was hired later by Pulver to serve as the codeveloper on the project.

Rotwitt says there was never a conflict because his work for the court ended before he signed on as codeveloper. He also says Castille and others involved were aware of his roles.

Castille contends he learned of Rotwitt's development deal from The Inquirer. Castille canceled the deal after a more detailed story hit the front page. Rotwitt's law firm then fired him, saying it also wasn't aware of his development deal.

Here's where things stand: Rotwitt has been thrown under the bus. Everyone else is scrambling to cover their backside.

Of course, no one - especially not any of the lawyers in the mix - wants to question Castille's role. What lawyer wants to get on the bad side of the state's chief justice?

The problem is that Castille's version of events raises as many questions as it answers. Was he duped or asleep at the switch? Either way, Castille looks bad - even if his motives were good. As such, he is in no position to lead the investigation or hire the lawyers to determine where the money went.

Granted, that Rotwitt is getting paid on both sides of the deal smells. Another red flag is that Rotwitt was originally hired by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Newman just months after she began dating Martin Weinberg, the head of the firm that employed Rotwitt.

But the sad truth is that it's not a shock when a lawyer at a politically connected Philadelphia firm finds a way to eat lunch and dinner at the public trough. That's what pigs do.

Castille, however, must answer to a different standard. He has a duty to the public. Best case, everyone was working hard to build a new court. But that doesn't mean proper procedures can be ignored.

There is a state office that oversees building projects. Instead, the court handled it. Rotwitt was given a no-bid contract. In turn, Castille says he relied on Rotwitt's advice that all the prices were fair.

In explaining why he authorized spending millions of dollars without a signed construction agreement, Castille said: "I took a roll of the dice." That's fine if you are playing with your own money in a casino. But when it comes to taxpayers' money, you can't wing it.

The fact is, Castille approved much of the spending he is now paying a lawyer from a firm that's involved in the deal to examine. How is that report going to read?

In the fall of 2008, Castille agreed to pay Rotwitt $55,000 a month as the "tenant representative" on the project. Pulver was paid $1 million in "land costs" even though the property was owned by the Parking Authority, which was not charging Pulver for the air rights to build there. Obermayer, Rotwitt's former firm, was paid $284,000 in legal fees that Castille's spokesman cannot explain.

It seems that Castille knew or should have known about Rotwitt's role as the developer, despite Castille's claim that he learned about it in the newspaper. In April 2008, Rotwitt sent the court a proposed agreement that said he was Pulver's development partner.

Castille issued a statement to the paper before any stories appeared that confirmed Rotwitt was Pulver's development partner. His statement didn't raise any ethical concerns.

It's a classic Philadelphia story: two connected law firms involved in a development deal driven by high-powered pols - including Gov. Rendell, who has the power to release the $200 million to build the court.

Everyone knows everyone, and no one is asking any questions. Who cares? It's other people's money.

Castille appears to have dropped the ball, and the lawyers around him were no help. But no one is in a position to tell the chief justice that - while the Family Court has yet to break ground - he has dug himself a big hole.