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.