Thursday, September 22, 2016

EXTRA EXTRA, 'The Docket' is a Hit

EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT – Everything that’s going on in the county Clerk of Courts Office, that is.

A lover of news and newspapers, First Deputy Clerk of Courts Michael Paston is using his desktop publishing skills to create a bi-monthly newsletter for his staff, bringing them up to date on everything from new hires to employee milestones. Everyone’s birthday gets listed in the newsletter and there’s also the occasional trivia question.

“We’re always looking at ways to increase morale and get people who don’t work directly with each other learning things about each other. It just creates a better work atmosphere if people know some things about each other and have something in common. So, I thought a newsletter might help,” Paston told me recently.

“We’re just trying to appreciate people’s work a little more and make their work day more pleasant,” Paston added.

It’s called “The Docket” and Paston said the reaction has been “favorable.”

“People really enjoy it,” said Paston, who previously worked in the printing business and handles the writing and design on his own time and at his cost on his home computer.

The first edition being August/September 2015, the newsletter recently marked its first anniversary.

“Every edition we ask a question which everybody answers. It’s usually amusing, like ‘What’s your favorite record?’ or ‘Who would you like to meet?’” Paston said. “That gets people talking.

“There are no controversial topics or anything like that. It’s supposed to be light and fun. I make 45 copies and everyone gets one,” Paston added.
First Deputy Clerk of Courts Mike Paston reviews 'The Docket'/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Other recent questions posed to office staffers included: “Where in the world would you most like to visit?” “What is your favorite movie?” “What do you collect?” and “With whom would you most like to have lunch?”

Office clerk Greg Brooks contributes an environmental column to the newsletter, educating colleagues about such things as waste reduction practices, like using reusable bags.

In some issues Paston interviews others who are often seen inside the Clerk of Courts Office but who aren’t employees of the office.
“There are people who are in the office every day but not everyone necessarily knows who they are,” said Paston.

For the June/July 2016 issue Paston interviewed Lavern Adger, who cleans the second floor office each day. Paston said the article was “a hit.”
“Just after our day ends, Laverne starts the job getting our office ready for another day and she does a great job,” Paston wrote in the article, adding Laverne enjoys cookouts, spending time with her children and grandchildren and watching Sunday Night Football, cheering for the Eagles.

A frequent visitor to the office during my daily news gathering activities, I was asked to sit down for an interview about my job for the August/September 2016 edition. I am sure there are some in the office who saw me there every day but weren’t quite sure what I was up to. Now they know.

So, Paston switched the tables on me and I became the interviewee. I have to admit, it was a bit uncomfortable being the subject but Paston put me at ease as he asked about my background and the “biggest cases” I’ve covered in court.

Paston posted the article, “Carl Hessler Keeps The Beat on Criminal Cases” on the front page, along with a photo.

Mike, maybe you should consider a side career as a journalist or headline writer.

While newspapers and magazines nationwide are focusing more and more on online content as opposed to print, Paston said he wanted employees to have something tangible.
“People like to read it. They can clip something and hang it up. If you put it as an email attachment and they don’t have time to open it they’ll never open it again. It will just go away,” Paston said.

While it might be considered old-school, Paston actually enjoys holding a newspaper to read it.
“I get two newspapers every day and I read them cover to cover. And I still buy books and my kids get mad at me,” Paston joked, explaining he enjoys holding a book rather than reading one on an electronic device.
Mike Paston/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Mr. Everybody’s Business likes his philosophy. There’s just something about holding a newspaper or book in your hands that can’t be replaced by an electronic version.

“The Docket” is impressive and I’m sure it’s appreciated by the staff.  Kudos to Paston for creating this little publishing gem that boosts employee morale! 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Look Back: Observations From Kane Trial

Last month, citizens statewide were glued to the trial of embattled Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Granahan Kane as it played out in Montgomery County Court. It certainly was one to remember.

A lot has been written about the trial and verdict. But here are a few more observations from Mr. Everybody’s Business.

During the trial, Kane, 50, the first woman and first Democrat to be elected to the office, was supported daily by various relatives and friends, including her twin sister, Ellen Granahan, who crowded into the first pew on the defense side of the courtroom. Those supporters, many of whom Kane hugged and kissed on the cheek when she entered the courtroom, stayed by her side until the closing arguments of the lawyers were completed.
Kathleen Kane/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

But when the verdict came, it was only Kane’s sister who sat alone in that front row, the only one there to support Kane as she received the devastating news – a conviction of all nine charges, including perjury and obstruction.

I thought it must be a very lonely moment for the twin sisters but neither one showed any emotion.

As the verdict was announced, Kane remained seated at the defense table. Usually, defendants are asked to rise and face the jury when learning their fate. No one explained why Kane was permitted to remain seated but it was an unusual moment.

Another odd moment came when just after the last “GUILTY” verdict was announced Bruce L. Castor Jr., a Lower Salford Republican who served as district attorney from 2000 to 2008 and then as a county commissioner from 2008 to 2016, entered the courtroom and sat in the gallery.

Castor, who was appointed by Kane in March to be her state solicitor general, essentially second-in-command, had not attended the trial up until that point. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when Castor finally got to speak to Kane privately after the verdict.

Bruce L. Castor Jr./Submitted Photo
To add to the strangeness is the history. During last fall’s election, Castor ran an unsuccessful campaign to return as county district attorney and was defeated by Democrat Kevin R. Steele, who was installed as district attorney in January, and who was the lead prosecutor in the case against Kane.

Two days after she was convicted, Kane resigned and Castor took over as acting attorney general. But Castor’s tenure was short-lived as newly installed Attorney General Bruce Beemer announced this week that Castor’s last day as solicitor general will be Sept. 9.

The trial played out in the ceremonial courtroom at the courthouse. It’s the courtroom where portraits of all the county judges decorate the walls. I observed Kane scanning some of the portraits during breaks in the trial. One couldn’t help but feel the eyes of the entire bench watching this trial play out, one where the state’s top law enforcer was accused of lying in a court of law.
Portrait Wall in Courtroom A

Even more ironic was that on one wall, to the right of Kane, was the portrait of Judge William R. Carpenter, who was the supervising judge of the grand jury that investigated Kane’s leaks in 2014, the investigation that led to her arrest. 
Portrait of Judge William R. Carpenter

Eerily, it was as if Carpenter was looking over Kane’s right shoulder throughout the trial. I wonder if Kane felt his presence.

During the weeklong trial, Kane, fashionably dressed, never tried to duck members of the press who were camped outside the courthouse, behind crowd control fences lining a courthouse walkway. Each day Kane arrived and left via that walkway and paraded past reporters confidently smiling at their cameras and greeting them with waves and a friendly ‘Hello.”
Kathleen Kane/Photo from video by Carl Hessler Jr.

But after her conviction something changed. Kane didn’t leave the courthouse via that walkway and was permitted to leave, under the cover of darkness, through a side courthouse door where no reporters were gathered. Before anyone figured it out, Kane was inside a black SUV being whisked away by her security team. One has to wonder if Kane’s security team managed to obtain special treatment for “The General.”

There was a lot of media from all over the state covering the trial and satellite trucks parked outside the courthouse. One courthouse visitor who got on an elevator with me saw my press badge and said, “What floor is the circus on?” I laughed, knowing exactly to what he was referring, and told him it was the third floor.

“He replied, “Good, I’m going to avoid that one.” He got off on the second floor.

Note to future courthouse visitors: I suspect the media circus will be back in town on Oct. 24 when Kane faces Montgomery County Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy at a sentencing hearing to learn her fate.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Cosby Saga - Pretrial Episode One

Entertainer Bill Cosby had his first pretrial hearing in Montgomery County Court this week on charges he allegedly drugged and molested a woman at his Cheltenham mansion in 2004 and a lot was said in the courtroom. But it’s what was said outside the courtroom by Cosby’s lawyers that captured the most attention.

Defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle characterized Cosby as a victim of racial discrimination.

“Mr. Cosby has spent his entire life trying to fight against injustice, trying to help other people overcome racism and prejudice,” McMonagle said on the steps of the courthouse Tuesday, adding the media has presumed Cosby guilty, not innocent. 

“The media has championed the causes of his accusers with little thought to investigation, with little thought to exposing the motivations behind any accusations…”

Co-defense lawyer Angela Agrusa, implied a lack of investigation has led to “a barrage of new accusers claiming, ‘Me too.'" She added, “To accept the assumption of guilty by numbers or guilt by volume is really the same thing as accepting the assumption of guilt before innocence. For Mr. Cosby, this is a version of the shoot now, ask questions later approach to judicial justice.”

The lawyers’ statements came in the wake of District Attorney Kevin R. Steele filing a request to allow 13 other women who alleged to have been the victims of Cosby’s inappropriate conduct to testify at Cosby’s trial for sexually assaulting alleged victim Andrea Constand in 2004. In the court filing Steele said, “What became clear was that defendant has engaged, over the course of his lifetime, in a pattern of serial sexual abuse.”
District Attorney Kevin R. Steele/Submitted Photo

Steele’s request is expected to result in the defense waging an aggressive battle to prevent that testimony from ever coming in. That’s a battle for which I want a front row seat in court.

Later in the day, Cosby spokesman Andrew Wyatt fired off the following statement expounding on the defense team’s claims:

“Mr. Cosby is no stranger to discrimination and racial hatred and throughout his career Mr. Cosby has always used his voice and his celebrity to highlight the commonalities and has portrayed the differences that are not negative --- no matter the race, gender and religion of a person.

“Yet, over the last 14 months, Mr. Cosby and those who have supported him, have been ignored while lawyers like Gloria Allred hold press conferences to accuse him of crimes for un-witnessed events that allegedly occurred almost a half century earlier,” the statement read, referring to Allred, the civil rights lawyer who represents dozens of women who allege Cosby had inappropriate contact with them.

Civil Rights Lawyer Gloria Allred/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“The time has come to shine a spotlight on the trampling of Mr. Cosby’s civil rights. Gloria Allred apparently loves the media spotlight more than she cares about justice. She calls herself a civil rights attorney, but her campaign against Mr. Cosby builds on racial bias and prejudice that can pollute the court of public opinion. And when the media repeats her accusations – with no evidence, no trial and no jury – we are moved backwards as a country and away from the America that our civil rights leaders sacrificed so much to create.

“Mr. Cosby is not giving up the fight for his rights,” the statement ends.

Bill Cosby leaves court/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
After the hearing, as Cosby walked to a waiting vehicle to take him home, some fans shouted “Thank you, Bill” and “Stay strong, Bill” as they used cell phones to capture video or a photo of the entertainer.
Another fan yelled, “Jell-O, there’s always room for Jell-O Mr. Cosby,” an obvious reference to Cosby’s role as a pitchman for Jell-O pudding and gelatin in the 1980s and 1990s.

Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Submitted Photo

During the early part of the pretrial hearing, Judge Steven T. O’Neill said he was aware of published reports that seemed to indicate Cosby suffers from blindness. O’Neill advised McMonagle to let court administrators know if the actor needs any “special accommodations” as the trial process moves forward. McMonagle thanked the judge for the consideration but did not address or elaborate on the state of Cosby’s eyesight at that time.

But as Cosby, 79, whose mugshot showed his right eye appearing cloudy, walked to and from the courtroom he was guided by the arm by an aide and walked with the help of a cane at times. However, the actor appeared more fit than he has in the past and was jovial with his aides during breaks in the proceedings. Some courtroom spectators could be heard openly questioning if Cosby was attempting to garner sympathy.
Bill Cosby mugshot/MontcoPa DA Office

During a discussion on setting a trial date, the judge said it was difficult given that McMonagle is “one of the most preeminent trial lawyers” in the five-county Philadelphia region who has a large inventory of cases and is already attached to several murder trials during the upcoming year.

“I did look around when you said ‘preeminent,’ judge,” McMonagle joked and smiled humbly, eliciting laughter from some amused spectators.
The judge and the lawyers finally agreed on a June 5, 2017, trial date for Cosby.

Stay tuned, there’s more to come in this saga - Pretrial Episodes 2 - ? are on the way.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Lawyers Make Moves in Two High-Profile Cases

There are some developments in both the criminal court cases pending against actor Bill Cosby and Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, with lawyers either withdrawing or joining the defense teams.

Los Angeles lawyers Christopher Tayback and Joseph Sarles are out as part of Cosby’s defense team, filing petitions on Tuesday in Montgomery County Court to withdraw their appearances. Tayback and Sarles, of the Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan firm did not expound on their reasons for withdrawing from the four-member defense team.

Lead defense lawyer Brian J. McMonagle, of Philadelphia, and Monique Pressley, of Washington, D.C., will continue to represent Cosby, who is facing sex assault-related charges in connection with an alleged encounter he had with a woman at his Cheltenham home in 2004.

Just last week, it was Tayback who did much of the arguing in court on behalf of Cosby during a hearing on defense requests to dismiss charges or to grant Cosby a new preliminary hearing. 

Bill Cosby/ Submitted Photo

During the hearing, Tayback, argued Cosby’s “due process rights” were violated when prosecutors relied on so-called “hearsay” evidence to establish the elements of the charged offenses without providing Cosby the chance to confront and cross-examine his alleged accuser at his May 24 preliminary hearing.

The judge rejected the defense arguments, allowing Cosby’s case to move to trial, which presumably is months away.

In Kane’s alleged perjury case, Philadelphia lawyer Douglas K. Rosenblum joined the defense team as co-counsel, according to documents filed this week in county court. Rosenblum, of the firm Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, is well-known to county courthouse observers having once been employed as a county prosecutor.

Rosenblum joins defense lawyers Gerald L. Shargel, Seth C. Farber, and Ross M. Kramer, of the New York law firm of Winston & Strawn, and Scranton lawyer Amil Minora on Kane’s defense team.

Kane faces an Aug. 8 trial on charges of perjury, obstructing administration of law, abuse of office and false swearing in connection with allegations she orchestrated the illegal disclosure of confidential investigative information and secret grand jury information to the media and then engaged in acts designed to conceal and cover up her alleged conduct.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Montco Prosecutor Kristen Feden Honored by Local Magazine

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden is known for being tough in court and yet many consider her to be one of the most likable prosecutors to grace the halls of the courthouse. She greets everyone with a smile and always seems to have a kind word. Her laugh is infectious.

Lately, she’s had even more to smile about.
Montco Asst. D.A. Kristen Feden/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Feden, who has been a prosecutor since 2012, was honored in the Philadelphia Business Journal’s May special edition entitled, “40 Under 40 Living The Dream,” which profiled Philadelphia area movers and shakers under 40 who are dedicated to their careers and communities.

“It definitely caught me off guard. I was very surprised but I was ecstatic when I received it,” Feden, who is captain of the district attorney’s elder abuse unit and is a member of the sex crimes prosecution division, told me recently. “It was one of the highest honors I’ve received.”

The popular business publication featured Feden, of Abington, on its cover and a profile of Feden was included in the inside pages.

“I was extremely excited. It was such a great honor because being recognized as a public servant by a business journal shows that even the business world recognizes, respects and honors public servants, including prosecutors, whose sole job is to keep the community safe,” said Feden, who was a law clerk for Judge Garrett D. Page before being hired as a prosecutor.

Kristen Feden pages through Philadelphia Business Journal
Feden, a graduate of Temple University Beasley School of Law, has prosecuted many sex crime cases. 

She recently was assigned to assist District Attorney Kevin R. Steele in the prosecution of entertainer Bill Cosby, who is accused of sexually assaulting a woman at his Cheltenham home in 2004. 

It’s the highest profile case to ever hit the local courthouse.

You can bet that all eyes will continue to be on Feden as the Cosby case winds its way through the court system this year.

Feden’s coworkers said her being recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal was well-deserved.

“I was very ecstatic to hear that she was nominated. She is a hardworking individual. She cares deeply about her cases and the victims that are involved and she’s a fantastic prosecutor. So I was not surprised that she was nominated and I’m very excited for her,” said colleague Assistant District Attorney Sophia Polites.

Feden, who is married to Nicholas Feden and is the mother of two young boys, Nicholas Jr. and Ethan, who she calls her “beautiful angels,” said she shares the honor with her colleagues.

“I let them know this was an honor that I shared with all of them as a public servant because all of them have helped me to achieve this,” Feden said humbly. “It wasn’t just an honor for me, it was an honor I share with the office as a whole and my fellow prosecutors.”
Kristen Feden proudly displays Philadelphia Business Journal that honored her on front page/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

So if you see Feden in the courthouse hallways congratulate her for being recognized by the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Mr. Everybody’s Business also says, congratulations, Kristen!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Stan Sarnocinski Participates in Flag Day Ceremony

On June 14, Stan Sarnocinski Jr., who works for the county's purchasing department as supply room supervisor, participated in an annual Flag Day ceremony held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

“I was proud and I was very happy to do this and very honored to be able to be there,” Sarnocinski said when I talked to him this week after his participation in the event.

Stan Sarnocinski Jr. (Center) with members of U.S. Army Color Guard/Photo courtesy Sarnocinski

Sarnocinski, currently the national president of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, the oldest patriotic organization in the U.S., founded in 1847, was a guest speaker at the event and was joined on the trip by 38 others from the organization. The U.S. Army also celebrated a birthday on June 14.

“Having a mom and a dad who were both World War II vets, I got to ring the Freedom Bell twice, for my mom and dad,” Sarnocinski said proudly.

The bell also was rung 49 times in remebrance of the victims of last weekend’s shooting spree in Orlando.

Here’s what Sarnocinski had to say when he spoke to the audience at the ceremony:

“As National president of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, I am honored to be here in Philadelphia today to help celebrate Flag Day. I also would like to wish the U.S. Army a Happy 241st Birthday. The Patriotic Order Sons of America was founded in 1847 in Philadelphia by Dr. Reynell Coates. The order was instrumental in getting Flag Day made a national holiday. One of our brothers, Francis E. Walter, who was a U.S. congressman, drafted the legislation which was signed on Aug. 3, 1949, by President Harry S. Truman declaring Flag Day fall each year on June 14. Our order has a long history in the Philadelphia area. We helped to save the Betsy Ross House and to bring Admiral Dewey’s flagship, the U.S. Battleship Olympia, to Philadelphia. We also helped to purchase and restore General George Washington’s Headquarters in Valley Forge. The order is glad to be able to present these American Flags to Independence Hall and the U.S. Park Service again this year. Thank you.”

Flag Day at Independence Hall/Photo courtesy Stan Sarnocinski
Members of the Order presented the superintendent at Independence Hall with a photograph of President Harry S. Truman in 1949 signing legislation that earmarked June 14 as Flag Day. 

The Order has also donated flags to fly at Independence Hall and at Valley Forge National Historical Park for over 60 years, according to Sarnocinski.

At the conclusion of the ceremony members of an Army paratrooper squad parachuted with giant American Flags.
“That was so impressive,” Sarnocinski recalled.

Sarnocinski is known for displaying patriotism year round. As a member of the Patriotic Order Sons of America, Washington Camp 523 of Eagleville, he has taken part in numerous solemn ceremonies retiring hundreds of tattered and torn American flags. Many of the flags are collected at the county courthouse in a special flag drop-off box that Sarnocinski was instrumental in securing.

The Order also has sponsored flag retirement boxes at the following locations: Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge National Historical Park; the Lower Salford Township building; Ace Hardware, Route 63, Harleysville; the 4-H Club along Route 113 in Creamery; the Lowe’s store on Egypt Road, Oaks; the Montgomery Township building along Stump Road in Montgomeryville; the American Legion Post 688, Route 30, in Wayne, Chester County; and at the organization’s state office along Route 61 in Leesport, Berks County.
Stan Sarnocinski Jr. collecting retired flags/ Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

I salute you, Stan, for participating in these very patriotic events!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Sometimes Jurors Bring The Drama to a Courtroom

One thing I have learned after covering courts for more than two decades, jurors are unpredictable and many times they bring their own drama to a courtroom or present unusual requests.

During the trial of a Norristown pastor who was accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl, there were moments of tension as the defendant’s supporters and the victim’s family lined the hallways waiting for a verdict. 

When word of a verdict came, everyone piled into Judge Gary Silow’s courtroom, anxious for the announcement.

There’s no more intense time in a courtroom than those moments when everyone is assembling to learn of a verdict, moments filled with an eerie silence. It’s the most nerve-wracking time of a trial.

However, on this particular occasion the drama was suddenly heightened when one of the jurors fainted on his way into the courtroom to announce the verdict. His fellow jurors, those who had already entered the courtroom and had taken their seats, had worried looks on their faces as sheriff’s deputies jumped into action to attend to the ill juror.

Spectators appeared stunned and there were several tense moments during which everyone was wondering if that verdict would ever be announced. 

A few moments later, the juror, recovered from the fainting spell, appeared from a closed door at the rear of the courtroom, ready to take his place with his fellow jurors. The guilty verdict was then announced.

It was the first time that I could recall a juror fainting just before a verdict was about to be recorded. Talk about high anxiety.

Something unusual also occurred during the trial in May of a Pottstown man accused of sexually assaulting a woman on three occasions during a period of time when they dated.

Supporters of both the victim and the defendant and other spectators gathered one morning to hear closing arguments of the lawyers, Assistant District Attorney James Price and defense lawyer Benjamin Cooper.

Suddenly, it became apparent that something was amiss. Word soon leaked that one female juror had lost an article of diamond jewelry during the course of the day and some speculated she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on trial testimony if she was worried about finding her diamond. The proceedings before Judge Thomas P. Rogers suddenly came to standstill.

The jurors were kept secluded in a room behind the courtroom while sheriff’s deputies and others scoured the courtroom looking for the diamond. Some deputies, I was told, even went outside the courthouse to search in areas that the juror had communicated that she had frequented while on a court break.

About 45 minutes later the proceedings got back on track even though the diamond was never found.

During the trial of an accused Abington burglar, jurors apparently had a difficult time reading some of the exhibits that went back with them to the jury room. 

They sent a note to the judge asking if they could have a magnifying glass to read one of the exhibits, specifically phone records that prosecutors claimed linked the defendant to the area of the burglary.

Judge Steven T. O’Neill flat out told the jury “No,” that a magnifying glass wasn’t utilized during the trial and was not part of any exhibit. The jurors shook their heads in agreement, apparently understanding and accepting the judge’s decision. They promptly returned to the jury deliberation room without a magnifying glass and having to rely on their own eyeballs.

It was the first time I could recall jurors asking for a magnifying glass to review an exhibit.