Ex-chief justice Castille consulting for defense in Center City collapse civil trial

Supreme Court Judicial Bias
Whether or not Ronald D. Castille gets his wish to become Philadelphia's next U.S. attorney, he has found interim employment - consulting for the defense in the ongoing civil trial in the 2013 Center City building collapse that killed six people and injured 13.

Whether or not Ronald D. Castille gets his wish to become Philadelphia's next U.S. attorney, he has found interim employment - consulting for the defense in the ongoing civil trial in the 2013 Center City building collapse that killed six and injured 13.

Last week, Castille, the retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court chief justice, floated his name to become Philadelphia's next federal prosecutor in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

"I'm not ready to go into retirement just yet," the 72-year-old Republican said in confirming his interest to become U.S. attorney in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

When the collapse trial began its ninth week Tuesday, after the Thanksgiving break, the former chief justice was in City Hall Courtroom 653 making notes on the proceedings.

At a trial recess, Castille confirmed that he was consulting for one of the law firms, but said he was not permitted to say who hired him.

However, Castille sat on the defendants' side of the courtroom, and, as he walked in the hall, called out to an associate, "Where's Sprague?"

That indicates that Castille may be working with noted Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague, whose firm is defending New York real estate speculator Richard Basciano and his STB Investments Corp.

Basciano and STB owned a vacant building in the 2100 block of Market Street that was being demolished to make way for a large residential-commercial complex.

On June 5, 2013, an unsupported three- to four-story brick wall remaining from the Hoagie City building toppled and crushed the Salvation Army thrift store next door at 22nd and Market Streets.

Sprague and other attorneys in the trial are barred from speaking to reporters about the trial.

Castille and Sprague have collaborated before. Castille, Sprague, and former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala campaigned unsuccessfully this year to defeat a statewide ballot question to raise the mandatory retirement age for Pennsylvania judges from 70 to 75.

Although the nature of Castille's consulting is not known, Sprague and lawyers for the other defendants have made it clear they are building a record for appeal if the Common Pleas Court jury hearing the trial finds their clients liable for money damages.

Testimony in the trial resumed Tuesday with continued questioning of Basciano's former top aide, Thomas J. Simmonds.

The plaintiffs' lawyers maintain that Basciano and Simmonds should be held liable because they did no research before hiring an architect and demolition contractor for the ill-fated project.

Simmonds, however, blamed Center City architect Plato A. Marinakos Jr., whom he hired as STB's agent monitoring demolition.

Simmonds, STB's property manager, insisted he did not have the knowledge of construction and demolition to ask informed questions about the demolition.

"The recommendations came from Mr. Marinakos, a person I trusted and relied upon to provide advice to me and STB," Simmonds told the jury.

It was Marinakos who recommended demolition contractor Griffin Campbell for the job.

According to trial testimony, neither Marinakos nor Campbell had experience demolishing a multistory commercial building in a downtown environment.

In earlier testimony, Marinakos denied any responsibility for the collapse and blamed Campbell.

In addition to Basciano and STB, those being sued include Marinakos, Campbell, and excavator operator Sean Benschop.

The Salvation Army is being sued for purportedly ignoring the growing danger at the demolition site next door and failing to warn employees and customers.

jslobodzian@phillynews.com

215-854-2985 @joeslobo

www.philly.com/crimeandpunishment

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