Sunday, April 8, 2018

Remembering "The Bureau"- A Personal Tribute


Those of us who were fortunate to know Margaret “Peggy” Gibbons were shocked to learn last week that the longtime leader of the Montgomery County press corps passed away - just months after her position was eliminated, a victim of downsizing in the newspaper industry.
Margaret "Peggy" Gibbons/Submitted Photo

Having worked side by side for 28 years with the woman who was known as “The Bureau,” her death prompted a rush of emotions and a flood of memories, too  many to count or share here. 

When I arrived on the courthouse scene as a fledgling reporter with only one year of experience in 1990, I was initially intimidated by the grande dame of the press corps and her sometimes gruff exterior. Her reputation was that she was the one who would get the scoops and knew everything about everybody.

But I studied her and her methods and learned so much about this profession and I will be eternally grateful to “The Bureau,” who as it turns out, I would learn, had the kindest of hearts underneath all that boldness. If she respected you and trusted you, you were fortunate to become her friend.

Peggy's trademark giggle that would erupt when a humorous encounter occurred with a subject or when an outrageous, inappropriate headline appeared in the paper, was a ray of light in the windowless, bowels of the courthouse basement that she called home for all those years. We laughed often.  

Peggy was the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the evening, consistent dedication to her craft. She is the only one I knew who each day would meticulously cut her clips from the newspaper, tape them to florescent paper and file them away - for safe keeping, for future reference, the keeper of the record.
Montgomery County Courthouse

In between assignments, the woman who appeared tough to the outside world, showed her softer side when she talked about her family, especially her nieces and nephews, who she adored.

And Peggy had "affectionate" names for all of the new reporters - and there were dozens - who passed through the courthouse press room during her four decades. They ranged from "The Bim" to "Hansel and Gretel." No one was offended, because if Peggy had a nickname for you, it meant you had won her over.

I was at times addressed as, "You Toad," but more frequently I was known as “Boy Hessler” to Peggy, right up until the last day she spent in the courthouse. But I was not permitted to address her as “girl” or “Gal Gibbons,” as I would sometimes respond just to get a rise and a scowl out of her.

"Peggy" Gibbons/ Times Herald "Courthouse Hill" Column Photo
“I am a woman," she would quip as she promptly set me straight on the subject. At a loss for words, I never had a quick comeback for Peggy’s zingers. 

Peggy always had the upper hand, whether she was addressing a colleague or grilling one of the subjects she was writing about.

Initially, we worked as competitors, I was with The Mercury and Peg was with the Times Herald. Later we worked as a team when The Mercury and Times Herald merged under the same news company. We became competitors again when Peggy went to work for The Intelligencer several years ago.

Whether as teammates or as competitors, during the nearly three decades we shared space in the press room, Peggy and I were usually side by side covering trials or press conferences.

While I never confessed to Peggy that she was a mentor, she knew it. That brings me to my favorite memory.

Over the years, judges, politicians, lawyers and courthouse workers would see us in the hallways or stop by the press room and say to me, in Peggy’s presence, of course, “Peggy taught you everything you know.” I would pretend to balk, stomp my feet in fake defiance and attempt to deny it.

Peggy’s classic response: “They brought me a boy and I made him a man.”

Laughter, naturally, ensued. Peggy was pleased with herself and as usual, I never mastered a comeback to that.

Memorial Card
Now, her desk sets empty and in the days since her passing there is a hole in my heart as I look in that direction of the press room. Things will never be the same here without “The Bureau.

But rest assured, we will never forget Peggy.

Those who pass through the press room in the days and years ahead surely will hear endless stories about “The Bureau" and what she meant to us, an icon in the world of local journalism. One of a kind. 

My colleague Jim Melwert, of KYW News radio, and I, who are the sole remaining full-time occupants of the press room, will make sure of that.

“The Bureau” will live on.

RIP Peggy

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Judge Rothstein Has Deep Roots To Norristown, "Truly loves this county," Colleague Says

One thing I learned during the swearing-in ceremony of Montgomery County Judge Wendy G. Rothstein is that the new judge is deeply rooted to the Norristown area.

“She was born and bred in Norristown. Her entire career has been in Montgomery County. She truly loves this county and is part of its absolute fabric,” fellow Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio told the 200 people who packed Courtroom A for Rothstein’s swearing-in ceremony this week.
Montgomery County Judge Wendy G. Rothstein/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Carluccio, who was selected to offer remarks on behalf of Rothstein during the ceremony, said she was “honored” to tell the audience about her friend and to offer a glimpse of the woman who became judge. Everyone in attendance got a history lesson, of sorts, about Rothstein's life.

“Growing up she attended Norristown and Plymouth-Whitemarsh schools. Her father owned a furniture store right down the street from this courthouse, Goldenberg’s Furniture. It was a landmark in Norristown, it was a place where every family in this area went to get their furniture,” Carluccio said.

 “She actually grew up on the 1400 block of Astor Street, which is not five to six blocks, again, from this very courthouse.”

Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
According to Carluccio, Rothstein’s parents had purchased the Astor Street home from her grandparents.

Upon the death of Rothstein’s grandfather, when Rothstein was in 9th Grade, Rothstein’s parents purchased a home in Plymouth Township to make room for her grandmother to come live with them.

“So the whole family then moved from Astor Street to the home in Plymouth, where Wendy then attended Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School,” Carluccio said. “Now history repeating itself – that very house in Plymouth, Wendy then went on and purchased from her parents and she lives there to this day.”

While Rothstein was studying at Temple University, she spent her summers working at the county courthouse in the Prothonotary’s Office “doing everything from filing motions to assisting litigants who were walking in the door,” Carluccio told the crowd.

“This was the beginning of Wendy’s professional life in Montgomery County,” Carluccio said. “Once she graduated from college, Wendy got her first job, she was a social worker in foster care at the Montgomery County Office of Children and Youth. And after working there about a year, that’s when Wendy realized she wanted to do much more. So she went to law school.”
Wendy G. Rothstein/Submitted Photo

Rothstein graduated from Temple University in 1978 with a Bachelors of Social
Work and obtained her law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1982.

“While in law school, although she was out of state…she interned, you guessed it, back here in Norristown at our very own legal aid office,” Carluccio said.

Upon graduating from law school, Rothstein broke the glass ceiling as the first female lawyer hired at Pearlstine Salkin, Associates, now known as Fox Rothschild, in 1982, where she worked for 34 years, including partner in the Blue Bell office. Rothstein was elected to be a judge in November.

Rothstein also was the first woman appointed as a municipal solicitor in Montgomery County in 1988; appointed by the county judges to serve as a discovery master in 2001; and appointed by county judges to serve as a Chair of a Board of View in 2013.

“Not easy feats back in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Carluccio pointed out.

Carluccio said Rothstein practiced law in five divisions of the courts – Civil, Criminal, Family, Orphans’ and Juvenile.

“I dare say there are very few people that can actually claim that. She has a stellar reputation in complex business litigation, commercial litigation, land development, zoning and condemnation matters,” Carluccio said. “She’s worked in many capacities in our Bar Association.

“So after all the work she’s done in our courts, it’s only a natural transition for her to finally serve this court in its ultimate capacity, as a judge on this Court of Common Pleas,” Carluccio added.
Judge Wendy Rothstein at Swearing-In/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.


Welcome “Home,” Judge Rothstein and congratulations on your ascension to the bench!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Montgomery County's Two New Judges Receive Their Assignments

The two Democrats who swept the contest for two seats on the Montgomery County bench in the Nov. 7 election have learned where they will preside come January.


Judge Wendy G. Rothstein will preside in the Criminal Court Division while Judge Jeffrey S. Saltz will preside in the Civil Court Division. 

The assignments were announced by President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci.

The judicial assignments are effective Jan. 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2019.

DelRicci said that earlier this year the board of judges adopted a judicial rotation policy, outlining how they’d like the rotation practice to be carried out.

“And I used that policy as my guideline in making these determinations. That was my primary guideline,” said DelRicci, referring to the judicial assignments he settled on for the 23-member bench. “We needed to make certain that all of the divisions would be appropriately served with both experienced and newer judges. So that had to go into the equation as well.”

Montco President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
On the criminal bench, Rothstein will join judges William R. Carpenter; Thomas C. Branca; Steven T. O’Neill; Richard P. Haaz; Steven C. Tolliver; Risa Vetri Ferman; and Todd D. Eisenberg.

On the civil bench during 2018, Saltz will join judges Thomas P. Rogers; Garrett D. Page; Gary S. Silow; and Gail A. Weilheimer. DelRicci will move to the civil bench in 2019 when Silow moves to the Family Court Division.

Rothstein, 61, of Plymouth Township, a partner in the Blue Bell office of Fox Rothschild LLP, was the top vote-getter in the balloting on Nov. 7, capturing 154,616 votes, according to unofficial election results.

Saltz, 64, of Lower Merion, who has run his own law firm in Philadelphia since 1998, came in second in election balloting, according to unofficial results, garnering 96,204 votes.
Rothstein and Saltz were elected to 10-year judicial terms and will take their oaths of office in January.

The Democrats defeated lone Republican contender and current Judge Joseph P. Walsh, who captured 69,097 votes, according to unofficial but final returns. Walsh, 52, of Montgomery Township, has been on the county bench since September 2016 when he was appointed to fill a vacancy by Gov. Tom Wolf and he was seeking to retain that seat.
Judge-Elect Wendy G. Rothstein/Submitted Photo


During the campaign, Rothstein touted her 34 years’ experience as a trial lawyer and said she was most proud of having been “a trailblazer for women in the legal profession,” explaining she “broke the glass ceiling” as the first female lawyer hired at Pearlstine Salkin, Associates, now known as Fox Rothschild, in 1982; appointed as a municipal solicitor in Montgomery County in 1988; appointed by the county judges to serve as a discovery master in 2001; and appointed by county judges to serve as a Chair of a Board of View in 2013.

Rothstein will join nine other women currently on the county bench.

Saltz was a board member of the Montgomery County Industrial Development Authority from 2002 to 2008 and was a law clerk to Judge Harrison L. Winter, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit from 1978 to 1979.

Judge-Elect Jeffrey S. Saltz/Submitted Photo
Saltz graduated from Princeton University in 1975 and is a 1978 graduate of Harvard Law School, according to his resume.


Rothstein graduated from Temple University in 1978 with a Bachelors of Social Work and obtained her law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1982.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Judge O'Neill Appointed to New Post Overseeing Specialty Courts

The Montgomery County judge who oversees Drug Treatment Court has been appointed to fill a newly-created administrative post on the 23-member bench.
Judge Steven T. O'Neill/Submitted Photo

Judge Steven T. O’Neill was appointed as the administrative judge of treatment courts, an announcement made this week when President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci unveiled judicial assignments for the period Jan. 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2019.

“Judge O’Neill will supervise all of our specialty courts,” DelRicci said. “That’s a brand new administrative position.”

Those specialty courts include Drug Treatment Court, Behavioral Health Court and Veterans’ Treatment Court.
President Judge Thomas M. DelRicci/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“That work that we’re doing has just gotten too large and it’s very complex because you’re dealing with not only the Department of Probation and Parole and the service agencies that assist us in providing for the needs of those people in those programs, but there’s also a lot of grant applications and things like that that have to be taken care of,” DelRicci explained.


“It’s a huge job and to throw that under the role of the administrative judge of the Criminal Division means that the person just doesn’t have time to do both, so I split that up,” added DelRicci, explaining the rationale behind the creation of the new administrative post.

O’Neill previously was the administrative judge for the Criminal Division. But Judge Thomas C. Branca will officially move into that position come January.

O’Neill was appointed to the county bench in April 2002 by then Governor Mark S. Schweiker and was sworn in on July 29, 2002, as a county judge, according to his biography. O’Neill was then elected to a 10-year term in 2004 and was retained for another 10-year term in 2014.
Judge O'Neill/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.



O’Neill, a 1975 graduate of Drexel University who received his law degree from Villanova University in 1978, has been assigned to the criminal division since 2007. Additionally, O’Neill launched the drug treatment court and has overseen its operation for 11 years.





DelRicci, who was installed as president judge in January and who was retained during the Nov. 7 election for another 10-year term on the bench, announced other judicial assignments this week.

Judge Carolyn T. Carluccio was appointed to be the new administrative judge for the Family Court Division.

Judge Lois E. Murphy will remain as the administrative judge of the Orphans’ Court Division while Judge Thomas P. Rogers will remain the administrative judge of the Civil Court Division, which he has helmed for the last year. Judge Wendy Demchick-Alloy will remain administrative judge of the Juvenile Court Division, according to DelRicci.


Judge Cheryl L. Austin will helm Veterans’ Treatment Court, which previously was overseen by Judge Todd D. Eisenberg. Established in April 2011, the Veterans’ Treatment Court addresses the needs of veterans cycling through the court and prison system.


Judge Gary S. Silow will continue to oversee Behavioral Health Court, which was established in 2009 and addresses the needs of people with serious mental health problems who are progressing through the court and prison systems.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A FIRST IN MONTCO: Unique Defense Strategy Waged at Drug Smuggling Trial

Last week, a Norristown businessman offered a defense strategy never before waged in Montgomery County to charges he smuggled heroin for a drug trafficking organization, claiming he did so under duress by a Mexican drug cartel that threatened his relatives.

“They told me I had to work with them. They were going to kill my brothers in Mexico,” David Pacheco testified in county court, referring to men who visited his Norristown towing business in early 2015 and who he believed were representatives of the violent Mexican drug cartel known as New Generation Cartel Jalisco.
David Pacheco/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.


Courthouse insiders and seasoned defense lawyers told me they believed it was the first time such a defense was waged in a county courtroom. They were watching the trial closely.

Well-known defense lawyer John I. McMahon Jr. argued to jurors during his opening statement that prosecutors had to prove that Pacheco, 45, was not acting under duress by the Mexican drug cartel and its associates at the time he smuggled the drugs.

McMahon claimed duress is an “absolute defense” to criminal charges and arises under circumstances when, although an individual committed the acts that would constitute a crime, that he only did so based on the threat of violence to him or others. McMahon argued Pacheco was under extreme duress and was not guilty of the drug-related offenses with which he was charged.

While District Attorney Kevin R. Steele and co-prosecutor Robert Kolansky argued Pacheco willingly smuggled heroin inside retrofitted car batteries from Atlanta to New York City, via Montgomery County, out of greed to make money with the “poison he was peddling,” McMahon argued Pacheco was a “mule” threatened and intimidated by the cartel to cooperate.
Montgomery County DA Kevin R. Steele/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

McMahon, a prosecutor turned defense lawyer who has a reputation for being a zealous advocate for his clients, relied on a scholarly expert on Mexican cartels to argue the cartels use extortion, the threat of kidnapping family and relatives and even murder to get otherwise law-abiding Mexican immigrants to assist them.

John I. McMahon Jr./Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
Pacheco came to the U.S. 18 years ago, has no criminal record and operated a successful towing business, D&J Towing in Norristown, testimony revealed.

McMahon argued Pacheco initially rebuffed the requests of cartel associates who visited him but caved in when cartel members revealed they had photos of his relatives and knew where they lived.

In the end, the jury apparently did not buy the duress claim as an excuse for the conduct, convicting Pacheco of nine counts of possession with intent to deliver heroin.



But the trial offered spectators an education about Mexican drug cartels and a view of a defense strategy never before seen at a county trial.

IN A RELATED MATTER 

When it came time for the defense expert on Mexican cartels to testify via the Internet from California, his image displayed on a large television monitor for jurors, there was a glitch when officials couldn’t get the sound to work properly.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the part you don’t see on TV,” Judge Garrett D. Page addressed jurors, eliciting laughter from the panel, referring to the legal dramas so popular on television. “Technology isn’t perfect. Thank you for your patience.”

Judge Garrett D. Page/ Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.



After several minutes, officials worked out the technological problems and the trial resumed.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Montco Prosecutor Kristen Feden Moving On

Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden, who is part of the team that is prosecuting entertainer Bill Cosby on sex assault charges, is leaving the district attorney’s office effective August 15 for a new job.
Montco Assistant District Attorney Kristen Feden/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

Feden, who since February has been the captain of the district attorney’s domestic violence unit, is joining the Philadelphia-based law firm of Stradley Ronon as an associate and will primarily handle civil litigation.

However, District Attorney Kevin R. Steele said despite Feden’s departure she will be designated as a special prosecutor when Cosby faces his retrial in county court. That retrial is currently slated to begin Nov. 6.

Montco D.A. Kevin R. Steele/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.
“Kristen has been an outstanding prosecutor. She is always prepared, terrific in her approach and has excellent courtroom presence. We are sad to lose one of the best young attorneys we have. We will miss her personally and professionally…,” Steele said in a news release, adding he is pleased Stradley Ronon will permit Feden to continue with the Cosby prosecution.

William R. Sasso, chairman of Stradley Ronon’s management committee and board of directors, also praised Feden saying she is “an exceptional courtroom attorney and will be an asset to our strong litigation team.”

Michael D. O’Mara, chair of Stradley Ronon’s litigation department, characterized Feden as “a superstar in any setting,” whether as a criminal prosecutor or in private practice.

Around the courthouse, 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.

In May 2016, Feden, who has been a prosecutor since 2012, was honored in the Philadelphia Business Journal’s 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.

At the time, Feden ecstatically told me it was one of the highest honors she received. The popular business publication featured Feden, of Abington, on its cover and a profile of Feden was included in the inside pages.
Kristen Feden Displays Honor in 2016/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

“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,” Feden, who was a law clerk for Judge Garrett D. Page before being hired as a prosecutor, told me last year.

Feden, a 2009 graduate of Temple University Beasley School of Law, has prosecuted many sex crime cases.

Last year she was assigned to assist Steele in the prosecution of 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.

Feden drew nationwide attention when she presented the opening statement to jurors during the Cosby trial and when she handled the direct examination of Cosby's accuser, the star prosecution witness.

In June, a judge declared a mistrial when a jury could not reach a verdict at Cosby’s trial. The case is now scheduled for a retrial before Judge Steven T. O’Neill.

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

Feden, who is married to Nicholas Feden and is the mother of two young boys, Nicholas Jr. and Ethan, also once worked as a financial analyst for Bloomberg, L.P. in New York.

So if you see Feden in the courthouse hallways congratulate her on her new job as she advances her career.


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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Cosby Trial Puts Court Stenographer in Spotlight

Montgomery County Court stenographer Ginny Womelsdorf took center stage at Bill Cosby’s high-profile sexual assault trial when all eyes, and ears, in the courtroom were drawn to her as she had to recite the testimony of three trial witnesses from whom jurors wanted to hear again.


Womelsdorf had the tedious task of transcribing the previous testimony. Then the judge and lawyers informed her as to the passages that were to be read to the jurors. One of the testimonies included that of Cosby’s alleged accuser, the main witness in the case. Talk about a stressful situation with so many eyes watching you on a national scale.

But Womelsdorf, who has been assigned to the courtroom of Judge Steven T. O’Neill, who is presiding over the Cosby trial, stepped to the plate and completed the task with clarity, professionalism and composure. She read more than 30 minutes during one recitation and nearly an hour during another, occasionally taking a sip of water to clear a scratchy throat. Despite one brief coughing spell, Womelsdorf plowed forward, never skipping a beat.

O’Neill told jurors Womelsdorf “is the best in this country as far as I’m concerned.”





When @MontcoCourtNews tweeted about Womelsdorf’s performance under pressure, social media users responded kindly.


“Mad props to her!” one said. Another said, “Get that lady a parafin wax hand dip and some Ludens stat!” 

I have always said court reporters, those women and men who sit in courtrooms on a daily basis and record the hearings in civil and criminal cases, are some of the hardest working people at the courthouse.

They sit for hours listening to endless testimony, making sure to capture every word correctly - which can be difficult when a witness is soft-spoken or speaking way too quickly - and then spend hours transcribing that testimony for judges and lawyers. The reporters must keep track of all prosecution and defense exhibits and make sure they are properly marked as evidence during trials.

And they are often summoned to court by judges at a moment’s notice, having to drop whatever else they’re working on.

It’s not uncommon to see the registered professional reporters working late into the evening in their offices next to the press room at the courthouse. There is a lot of reliance on court reporters and I have no doubt the judicial system would come to a screeching halt if they weren’t around.


Ginny deserves some recognition for a job well done during an extremely intense situation at the highest-profile case that ever played out in Montgomery County. Bravo, Ginny!