John H. Estey emerges from the background as a power broker

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DRPA board chairman John H. Estey at a recent board hearing involving the Barnes foundation. Estey is at the center of public controversy on two fronts - the DRPA and the Family Court building. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

He is a lawyer of choice for those who want to do business with state government.

He heads three politically powerful agencies, and sits on the board of another.

He has influence over Philadelphia's port, its Convention Center, and its tourism industry. And he is a major ally and fund-raiser for the Democratic candidate for governor, Dan Onorato, a law school classmate.

But until this summer, John H. Estey may have been the most well-entrenched power player the public had barely heard of.

Now, though, Estey finds himself at the center of several public controversies - most notably the ongoing furor over waste and insider dealing at the Delaware River Port Authority - that together raise the question: Has this partner at Ballard Spahr politically overextended himself?

Former chief of staff to Gov. Rendell, Estey for years was well-known in the corridors of power. But when the TV lights came on, he usually stepped into the background, a trim figure in Oxford shirts with brown hair and rectangular glasses.

Since leaving Harrisburg in 2007, he has continued while working at Ballard to serve as Rendell's point man in promoting his major economic-development initiatives for Philadelphia, including port development and completion of the Convention Center expansion.

At the same time, Estey has started a new government relations and regulatory affairs practice at the law firm, aimed at capitalizing on his Harrisburg connections.

Because of his Rendell ties, he was picked by Ronald D. Castille, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, to represent the court system in successfully lobbying the governor for $200 million to construct a new Family Court in Center City.

It was his oversight of that deal for Castille that first brought Estey into the spotlight this summer.

The Inquirer reported July 11 that he failed to sound the alarm that another lawyer hired to represent the courts - Jeffrey B. Rotwitt - had made a deal with the project developer, a potential conflict that raised questions about who was guarding whose interests. The FBI is now investigating.

The newspaper reported that Estey had reviewed, at almost $600 per hour, a draft development proposal that indicated Rotwitt's dual role.

Clifford E. Haines, a lawyer for Estey, said in a July 20 letter to the newspaper: "This leaves the reader with the false and misleading impression that Mr. Estey was deficient in his performance as a lawyer. That suggestion . . . could not be further from the truth."

Estey, in a recent interview, said his client had directed him not to discuss the issue.

He still represents Castille and said he hoped to see the deal completed. All told, Ballard lawyers working on the project have been paid more than $600,000.

 

DRPA chairman

Ten days after the article appeared in July on Estey's role in the Family Court controversy, a blowup at the Delaware River Port Authority thrust Estey into the news once again.

For seven years, Estey has been chairman of the $300 million agency - first as a stand-in for Rendell, then as chairman in his own right.

The DRPA came under fire after news in July that executives of the bistate authority had been given E-ZPass transponders so they could cross toll bridges for free, and that one executive had borrowed a pass for his daughter to use to travel to school.

That revelation erupted into what one executive termed "a firestorm of media criticism" over the DRPA's long-standing patronage practices and its reflexive secretiveness.

Rendell and Gov. Christie, feeling heat on both sides of the river, urged the adoption of changes, including an end to no-bid contracts and a pledge by the DRPA to start complying with open-meeting laws.

Estey led in enacting some of these changes Aug. 18. Additional rules were adopted Aug. 24, including a requirement that companies doing DRPA business must disclose their political cash contributions.

But the storm has not abated. On Thursday, a visibly annoyed Christie said the changes didn't go nearly far enough. He vetoed several of them, and told the authority board to come up with something stronger.

The New Jersey attorney general and state comptroller are both still looking into the use of free E-ZPasses.

Political criticism also continues.

Estey has pledged to leave the board in January when a new Pennsylvania governor is inaugurated. But state GOP chairman Robert A. Gleason Jr. has called for him to quit now.

Through all of this, Estey has remained cool.

At the DRPA's 51/2-hour meeting Aug. 18, Estey was quiet and low key. Later, he said he felt that many of the elected officials on the board had been pandering for the media.

He said that, except for the E-ZPasses, he didn't believe the DRPA had done anything wrong - or wasn't doing anything it hadn't been doing for years.

And if the agency was political, well, it was built that way, with half the board members coming from New Jersey and half from Pennsylvania, and most of them politicians.

"There's a lot of smoke," he said, "but there's not a lot of fire."

 

Important jobs

High atop the BNY Mellon Center, with windows on a blue-gray day, Estey reached out to greet a reporter who was there to interview him for a man-in-the-news profile, his first.

"I'm surprised no one has written this story until now," he said. "I honestly am. Not because it's an ego thing, but look -"

He began to tick off all of the important jobs he holds.

Not just DRPA chairman.

Not just major conduit to state government for a law firm that has had $19 million in state contracts since Rendell became governor.

But also chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. Chairman of the board that runs the Independence Visitor Center. Board member of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. Legal adviser to the Convention Center, at which Ballard Spahr has been hired to develop a strategy for dealing with labor unions.

When aides to Carl R. Greene, the now-under-fire director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, were sending out invitations to celebrate Greene's 12th anniversary at the agency in March, Estey was on the list (though he said he knew nothing about, and had no involvement with, the event).

While Rendell's chief of staff, Estey was the governor's envoy in getting the $786 million expansion of the Convention Center off the ground. Now, the project is under construction and due for completion in March.

Republican Thomas T. "Buck" Riley, an Exton lawyer who chairs the Convention Center board, said that, without Estey, the expansion "never would have happened."

But in the long run, Estey's work at the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority potentially could leave the most impact.

Rendell credits him with successfully negotiating agreements to deepen the Delaware River channel, a key to attracting more ships to the port. Estey is now leading efforts to build the Southport Marine Terminal, which he says could create thousands of jobs.

 

Legal counsel

A history buff, Estey got hooked years ago on Shelby Foote's three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. He then found out that he had ancestor who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. And he is now a Rendell appointee to the Gettysburg Foundation.

A former civil trial attorney and father of three, Estey also recently was named to the board of the Defender Association, which provides legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants.

Estey, 47, first came to politics in his 30s.

He grew up on Delancey Street, near Rittenhouse Square. His father, John S. Estey, 86, was chairman of what is now the Montgomery McCracken law firm.

He went to Chestnut Hill Academy and Carleton College in Minnesota. He studied law at the University of Pittsburgh, where he made the Law Review and met his wife, Amy.

At law school, he became buddies with Onorato, now the Democratic nominee to succeed Rendell. The pair renewed their friendship years later when both were in government, and Estey has become a major Onorato campaign ally.

After clerking for U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O'Neill Jr. in Philadelphia, he practiced law with Mark Aronchick, a Rendell ally.

They worked on getting funds for children-and-youth services from a Republican administration in Harrisburg. They also worked to end federal court supervision of overcrowded city prisons.

"John is a very positive person, a can-do person," Aronchick said.

Aronchick introduced Estey to David L. Cohen, Rendell's chief of staff, a highly visible public figure who became almost legendary in local politics as a problem-solver.

After Cohen left City Hall, Estey became deputy chief of staff to Cohen's successor.

Later, when Rendell became governor, Cohen recommended Estey to be his staff chief in Harrisburg.

"I don't think people knew who John Estey was, but he was my choice from day one," Cohen said. "He was the rock of the administration. Incredibly smart. Incredibly well-organized. Tremendous grasp of the substantial issues. Terrific political instincts."

Yet, as Rendell's go-to guy in Harrisburg, Estey could never quite get free of the Cohen shadow, said State Rep. Samuel L. Smith, Republican leader in the House.

"He has maybe suffered from being compared to David Cohen - never being able to measure up to that reputation," Smith said.

But Steven MacNett, chief counsel to Senate Republicans, said Estey was the one person who could sell Rendell's ideas to Republicans.

In turn, he could get Rendell to swallow Republican proposals he might not have a taste for.

Estey's most difficult sell with legislators was getting them to go along with an income-tax hike in 2003 to erase a $2 billion deficit.

The one Harrisburg souvenir Estey keeps at his law office is the pen Rendell used to sign the tax hike. It may have been his biggest triumph as the governor's top aide.

 

He's no Fumo

Estey got on the DRPA board because he wasn't Vince Fumo.

The once-powerful Philadelphia state senator wanted Rendell to make him chairman in 2003. Rendell, fearing Fumo's habit of setting his own agenda, named himself as chair instead - and then designated Estey as his stand-in at meetings.

Estey recalled "nearly getting kicked out" of the Capital Grille in Philadelphia amid a shouting match with Fumo.

"When guys are bullies, sometimes you have to push back," he said. "They think they can push you around, and you have to show them they can't."

He may have pushed back at Fumo, but one board member, electricians union leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, says Estey could have showed more guts over the years as chairman.

"The same thing that makes him an effective manager during good times makes him move slower when we have issues here," Dougherty said.

Estey points out, however, that he instituted several major changes at the agency well before this summer. He led in trimming 120 staff positions - a 12 percent drop - and halted the practice of awarding professional contracts without bids.

That was how his own law firm - Ballard Spahr, which collected $3 million in recent years as the DRPA's general counsel - lost its contract with the agency. It chose not to bid under the new rules. The new counsel is Duane Morris.

Rendell said it was he, not Estey, who dragged his foot in pushing for some changes.

"I did not know of all the abuses, but I knew it was a patronage mill. . . . I didn't give John and the board the right instructions. I take the blame for that," he said.

 

What next?

What will become of Estey's clout when Rendell leaves office in January?

He will undoubtedly continue to benefit Ballard Spahr from contacts at all levels of government.

But most of his appointed positions have been conferred by Rendell. Has he now established a power base of his own?

That could depend, in part, on whether his old pal Onorato is elected governor. Among the $124,000 that Estey has contributed to political candidates in the past decade is the $36,000 he has given to Onorato.

"I am frankly not very concerned with power," Estey said. "I would hope that my success as an advocate for my clients and for the causes in which I believe would flow from the merits of my arguments and my integrity, not from my real or perceived relationship with any elected official.

"In the end," he said, "I still believe that the better idea will carry the day, not the better relationship."

 


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.