Fired aides sue Judge McFalls, claim he was often drunk

Thursday, December 06, 2001

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge H. Patrick McFalls Jr. was frequently drunk while on the bench, missed work due to alcohol abuse and illegally fired two staff members after they reported his misdeeds, the pair claim in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday.

The staffers, former law clerk James Joseph and his wife, legal secretary Barbara Joseph, say they observed McFalls under the influence of alcohol or drugs for more than three years, and claim it affected his ability to perform official duties.

McFalls called the allegations "fiction."

The most recent problems began in late October, according to the lawsuit, and led to the Josephs' dismissals. They claim they covered for McFalls as he rescheduled court business during a trip to the Cayman Islands. When he returned late, they said, McFalls presided over cases while drunk, while wearing vacation clothes and sandals, and, once, had a vodka bottle fall from his pocket in front of court visitors.

Several days later, James Joseph reported McFalls' behavior to Common Pleas Civil Division Administrative Judge Joseph James, according to the lawsuit. James said he told the law clerk he would confront McFalls, whose behavior he was already moni-toring under instructions from the state Supreme Court, the suit alleges.

After Joseph told McFalls he had met with James, McFalls fired Joseph and his wife, the suit says.

McFalls also fired tipstaff John Jakomas of McKeesport, who was not a plaintiff in the suit.

The Josephs' suit, filed by attorney Samuel J. Cordes, alleges the pair were unconstitutionally denied their right to speak on matters of public concern and seeks reinstatement to their jobs and back wages, plus compensatory damages and punitive damages against McFalls.

The suit was also filed against the Allegheny County government, saying Judge James, President Judge Robert A. Kelly and other county officials knew McFalls was inappropriately firing the staffers for speaking out.

In a brief phone interview yesterday, McFalls said the Josephs' attorney, Cordes, "has become a fiction writer" and said he would hold a news conference today to dispute the allegations. He also said the Josephs were often away from the courtroom on other business and couldn't have witnessed his behavior there.

"They were never there," he said.

Kelly said last night that he could not comment on the suit until he had read it and had talked to county government lawyers. James did not return messages.

James Joseph had served as McFalls' personal attorney since the late 1970s and was his spokesman during several highly publicized matters, including McFalls' drunken driving arrest in 1986, and his testimony in the federal extortion and racketeering trial of Ben Woods, another longtime friend of McFalls.

McFalls, of Shadyside, has been a common pleas judge since 1986. A South Fayette native and Vietnam War veteran, he worked as a deputy county controller and public defender in the 1970s, before losing bids for Pittsburgh City Council in 1978 and 1983 and for city controller in 1979.

During the 1989 Woods trial, a government witness said he made payoffs to Woods through McFalls, who was a private lawyer at the time. McFalls has long denied the charge. He offered the tipstaff position to Woods early this week after his son, Hugh McFalls III, turned down the job, but Woods turned it down, too.

According to the suit filed yesterday, the recent incidents began during an October vacation McFalls took to the Cayman Islands, south of Cuba, during which he would call the Josephs from time to time to say he was "personally responsible for buying every bottle of Dom Perignon in the Caymans."

He did not return from the trip in time to conduct three days of meetings with lawyers scheduled for Oct. 22, forcing the staff to conduct the conciliation sessions. Due to alcohol abuse, the suit says, he also had Barbara Joseph reschedule arguments set for Oct. 25 and a motion on Oct. 29.

The suit says McFalls returned to Pittsburgh the evening of Oct. 29 but was inebriated and spent the night at a hotel near the airport. The next day, McFalls arrived for court late dressed in vacation clothes and sandals. The Josephs found him a tie to wear during two cases. During one of the cases, a jury trial, a bottle of vodka dropped out of his pocket, the suit says.

From Oct. 31 through Nov. 8, the Josephs observed McFalls "was conducting court business while under the influence of either alcohol and/or drugs, and he was impaired and that his alcoholism was generally out of control." He delayed further cases and was drunk during others, the suit alleges.

The suit says Barbara Joseph confronted McFalls Nov. 9 about his drinking and was rebuffed. James Joseph then went to the administrative judge about McFalls' drunken behavior on and off the bench.

Judge James and Judge Kelly then scheduled a meeting with McFalls to be held on his return from another trip to the Caymans, the suit says. James Joseph called McFalls in the Caymans Nov. 13 to tell him of the meeting about his drinking.

The next day, the staffers were notified by letter that they had been fired. The suit quotes McFalls as telling Joseph "I had to carpet-bomb you, because you wanted to send me to rehabilitation," and quotes James telling Barbara Joseph that the staffers were "unfortunate roadkill."

Cordes, the Josephs' attorney, has a reputation for aggressively arguing workforce discrimination cases. He cemented the reputation in 1995 while representing two Fayette County women who in separate federal lawsuits accused former Judge Richard D. Cicchetti of Fayette County Common Pleas Court of sexual harassment.

When the cases settled the two women each received $125,000 and Cicchetti resigned his judgeship.