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McFalls' career a story of crashes

Judge is in rehab hoping to save job

Sunday, March 10, 2002

By Dennis B. Roddy and Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Behind in his rent and losing his patience, Pat McFalls stared at the parking garage gate blocking his exit.

As Merrill Stabile, president of Alco Parking, remembers, McFalls was $500 in arrears on his parking lease at the Manor Building garage, Downtown. The attendant, per instructions, told McFalls he would have to start paying in cash.

After a smoldering pause, McFalls hit the accelerator.

Judge McFalls

"He drove out of the garage and crashed the gate," Stabile said. "I don't ever remember getting the money from him. We just decided to write it off and forget about it. I don't think it's ever happened since. It's not a normal occurrence, mainly because most people care about their cars."

The story, decades old, is part of the legend of Hugh Patrick McFalls Jr., a man who has spent years crashing gates, literal and figurative. Born into an impoverished family, his father a disabled miner, McFalls barreled his way through linemen on the football field, earned an athletic scholarship to one of the country's top colleges, survived both law school and Vietnam and pounded at the gates of political fortune until, in 1985, he won a seat on the bench as an Allegheny County trial judge.

At the same time, McFalls has battled with drink, a dilemma that, in the last six months, has driven him from the courtroom into an alcohol rehabilitation center, and last month brought on an investigation by the state's Judicial Conduct Board.

But just as on that day at the parking garage, McFalls, 58, of Shadyside, refuses to be slowed. Always he is hitting the accelerator.

Just days after his supervisors asked the state Supreme Court to act in the wake of a lawsuit in which three fired staff members accused him of being drunk on the bench, McFalls was thrown out of a Shadyside restaurant after patrons reported that he had been loud, disruptive and had taken off his pants.

Asked about those complaints, McFalls insisted they were part of a plot to destroy him, and he accused fellow judges -- by name -- of drinking during work hours.

Was McFalls drinking?

"I can tell you when I don't drink," he replied. "When I'm on the bench -- while some others do -- I don't. I never drink at lunch. Others do and I think you know about it and you don't write about it."

McFalls had his own question:

"When are you going to write about the real me?"

That was three weeks ago. Since then, McFalls has dropped out of sight. His attorneys, in filings with the state Supreme Court, say he is in an alcohol rehabilitation facility outside of Pennsylvania.

McFalls grew up in the Sturgeon section of South Fayette, the namesake son of Hugh Patrick McFalls, an immigrant from Scotland who worked in the coal mines and, after developing black lung, in the office of the Allegheny County prothonotary. His older brother, James, went on to medical school. Patrick, a standout athlete, won a football scholarship to the University of Virginia, at that time an all-male school where students wore coats and ties and teachers cut no slack in grades.

McFalls joined Sigma Phi Epsilon, one of the school's well regarded fraternities, served on the student council and became a standout offensive tackle and honor student.

He graduated from Virginia in 1965 and attended Duquesne University Law School. After receiving his law degree in 1968, he entered the Army, where he was sent to Vietnam and earned one of the rarer of Bronze Stars. McFalls was given the award for deploying traffic in a major combat offensive.

In 1970, McFalls married Maureen Dailey, who grew up in suburban Cleveland. They separated in the 1990s and are now divorced. They have three children, Patrick, Maggie and Mara.

Brushes with the law

McFalls made several runs for public office, the most prominent in May 1978, when he sought the city council seat vacated by Richard S. Caliguiri, who became mayor. McFalls had party backing but lost to Michelle Madoff by fewer than 200 votes.

"It was unheard of to lose as an endorsed candidate," recalled former council member Ben Woods, a close friend who, the following year, urged McFalls not to challenge incumbent city Controller John McGrady. Instead, McFalls went $41,000 into debt for his campaign and lost by a 2-1 margin.

In April 1980, McFalls was charged with drunken driving, disorderly conduct and blocking a street car and arguing with a Port Authority conductor.

City Court Magistrate Joseph James, who later became McFalls' supervisor, dismissed the charges after McFalls apologized.

In 1983, McFalls was named as a go-between in a scheme in which Woods was convicted of taking payoffs for helping a contractor get city business.

Contractor Joseph Wozniak told investigators he gave McFalls three $1,500 checks, which McFalls was to cash and pass the money along to Woods.

On the stand, McFalls insisted he was retained as an attorney for Wozniak, but couldn't recall doing any work. And he denied passing the money along to Woods.

In closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Dillon called McFalls' testimony "a pack of lies." The jury convicted Woods.

McFalls never faced disciplinary action for his role.

After two failed political campaigns, McFalls, with the endorsement of the Democratic Committee, won a seat on Common Pleas Court in 1985. The next year, he was in trouble. A police officer in O'Hara noticed McFalls driving with what turned out to be a glass of liquor in his hand.

The judge refused a breathalyzer test and was charged with driving under the influence. McFalls entered the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for first-time offenders and his record subsequently was cleared.

Robert Dauer, then president judge of Allegheny County, immediately excused McFalls from hearing any DUI cases.

Dauer said he realized McFalls had a problem shortly after he went on the bench.

"I had some lawyers come down to my chambers and they said, 'We have a problem with McFalls. He won't go out on the bench. We have people waiting for a trial.' "

Dauer said he went to McFalls' chambers and asked a secretary if the judge was there.

"She said, 'He's in, but nobody can see him.' She said it was his special time for whatever."

Dauer said the woman asked him who he was.

"I told her, 'Young lady, I'm your boss, and if you don't open that door, you're fired.' "

Dauer said he found McFalls sitting quietly in his chambers.

"I said 'Pat, get out in the courtroom!' " Dauer said.

One of the more ominous portents of things to come, however, happened later, Dauer said, at a convention of state trial judges at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia.

Dauer walked into the lobby to discover that, moments before, McFalls had passed out in public. Hotel attendants carried him upstairs.

Dauer said he later assigned McFalls to the court's juvenile section because it had a more firmly structured schedule. McFalls eventually went to a rehabilitation center to dry out.

"We really kind of raised hell with him," Dauer said.

Back on track?

After returning to the Civil Division, McFalls seemed to have taken steps to organize his life and his courtroom. He issued a lengthy set of guidelines to lawyers scheduled to try cases before him, detailing when various documents and filings had to be ready.

"I just assumed Judge McFalls was behaving himself," Dauer said.

Precisely when McFalls resumed drinking, no one seems certain.

"He's been in my place many, many times and he never drank excessively," said John Zarra, of Zarra's restaurant in Oakland. "All of a sudden, this started happening in the last couple months."

McFalls, in a response to the state Supreme Court, said he was derailed, in part, by the events of Sept. 11.

McFalls handled two complex civil cases during September. One of them, a medical liability case, brought praise from the losing side. Pittsburgh lawyer Kenneth W. Behrend said McFalls constructed a careful record for a case that the judge understood would be settled by an appeals court no matter which way it was decided.

His cases over, McFalls left Oct. 10 for the Cayman Islands.

By the time Jay Ehrhart, who works at a radio station in the Cayman Islands, bumped into McFalls, the stories about "The Judge" had made their rounds on the island of Grand Cayman. After his October visit, McFalls had become so enamored of the Caymans that he would return for briefer trips in subsequent weeks.

"He would just come down here and be rip-roaring drunk all the time," Ehrhart said.

McFalls, according to those who bumped into him, spoke of having an inheritance. An aunt, Violet Markovitz, a longtime employee of Joseph Horne Co., died after suffering a fall in her Oakdale home in November 2000. McFalls had been named executor of her estate and one of her inheritors.

Ehrhart encountered McFalls at The Bed restaurant, one of Grand Cayman's swankiest. McFalls was hosting a table of young men, Ehrhart said, and would get up, walk behind the bar and pour his own drinks "like he owned the place.

"If there could have been a lampshade on his head, there would have been."

McFalls returned to Pittsburgh Oct. 29 and showed up for court the next day, his staff says in court filings, wearing sandals and vacation clothes.

After rounding up a necktie, the filing says, McFalls got on the bench to hear two arguments.

In early November came the case of Butler vs. Capaldo, which witnesses said became a clear case of strange behavior.

Dennis Butler, a building inspector in West Mifflin, had fallen while inspecting a home and was suing the owners.

The case, observers say, should have taken two days at the most.

But McFalls couldn't seem to get it started.

On Nov. 5, the jury, lawyers and defendants showed up at 9:30. McFalls did not appear until past noon, summoned counsel for the plaintiff and defense into his chambers and promptly ordered lunch.

For 2 1/2 hours, McFalls regaled the lawyers with stories of the Caymans. He talked about football. He talked about politics. He talked some more about the Caymans.

Plaintiff's attorney Jeffrey Olup got a Grand Cayman Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. Defense attorney Joseph Hudock Jr. was handed a T-shirt reading "The Barefoot Man."

McFalls suggested they keep court running until 5 p.m., but two jurors, already chosen, pleaded pressing business. One was a surgeon, the other, a postal inspector. McFalls summarily released both of them.

The next day was Election Day, with no court business. On Nov. 7, they returned for a 10:30 a.m. start. McFalls showed up at noon.

At some point, according to a lawsuit filed by his staff, a vodka bottle fell out of his pocket. None of the lawyers, however, appeared to have noticed it.

By the time the jury ruled in favor of the defendants on Nov. 9, his tipstaff, John Jakomas; his court secretary, Barbara Joseph; nad her husband James Joseph, who was serving as his law clerk, had planned to confront McFalls about his behavior.

After being rebuffed, they said, they took the case to Judge Joseph James, administrative judge for the Civil Division.

By then, McFalls had left again for the Caymans. According to the Josephs' court complaint, James telephoned McFalls in the Caymans and informed him that, on his return, "he should be prepared because the meeting was called to discuss McFalls' drinking behavior."

The next day, according to the complaints, the three staff members were told they had been dismissed from their jobs.

McFalls remembers it as an aborted coup. He said the Josephs had been running a business, Pegasus Limousine Service, on court time and that he had threatened to dismiss them if they didn't stop.

What President Judge Robert Kelly and James did was place McFalls on administrative leave, meaning he would hear no cases but receive his full $119,000 salary.

They ordered McFalls to meet with them to make plans for his return to the bench. He never showed. One missed meeting could be explained by the events of Feb. 11. McFalls was in Miami Beach, where, after a night of drinking, he came up $34 short on cab fare.

When the cabbie called police, McFalls, according to a report, became belligerent. He was taken to jail on a charge of misdemeanor theft.

Three days later, McFalls was thrown out of Casbah, a Shadyside restaurant, where, patrons said, he became drunk, loud and removed his pants.

The missing Mercedes

In explaining to the state Supreme Court why he had failed to meet with his superiors, McFals stated that he had gone into a rehabilitation facility, undone by the pressures of Sept. 11 and media attention to his behavior. The lawyers asked to have McFalls' leave extended so he could complete treatment.

Shortly afterward, police in California, Pa., discovered McFalls' Mercedes Benz sedan on the campus of the state college there. A 19-year-old freshman explained that, during a Steelers playoff game at Heinz Field in January, McFalls, a beer in his hand, handed over his car and told him to keep it.

The story sounded bizarre, but police declined to charge the young man. McFalls had reported the vehicle stolen two weeks after the game. Two others who were working as parking attendants verified the story.

A search of the car turned up a receipt showing that McFalls spent $600 for three pairs of sunglasses on Grand Cayman. In the back was a flight bag, with a US Airways baggage ticket attached. Inside they found 44 sterling silver forks from a Grand Cayman restaurant, wrapped in a hotel towel and inside a pillowcase from the Westin Casuarina, where McFalls likes to stay.

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