Thanks to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you no longer have to wonder why Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife worked so hard to have his ongoing divorce proceedings sealed.
Earnings of $3.9 million per month; annual loses at his downtown paper totaling $20 million to $30 million a year; an alleged affair; and a whopping, record-setting temporary alimony payment of $725,000 per month.
Despite his best efforts, some of the most sensitive documents filed in the case of pre-nupless, billionaire Scaife's divorce are now a matter of public record. But Scaife is fighting to have those documents hidden again -- with a legal petition that is itself sealed.
On Sept. 16, the Tribune-Review's rival, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published a story by reporter Dennis Roddy revealing some of the allegations contained in legal filings. The papers alleged that Scaife was underwriting his wife's living expenses, and the Tribune-Review's business losses, to the tune of millions of dollars a year.
On Friday Sept. 21, Roddy and the paper were served with summons to appear at 4 p.m. Sept. 26 in front of Judge Alan Hertzberg: Scaife was demanding that the paper return published documents to the court.
The P-G's response? On Sept. 23, it published some of the documents on its Web site, where anyone could read them.
"Mr. Scaife has asked the court to do something unprecedented: stop a newspaper from writing about documents that were publicly available and highly newsworthy," Post-Gazette editor Dave Shribman said in an accompanying story. Scaife's petition to have the documents returned is "newsworthy in and of itself" -- not to mention "a clear violation of the First Amendment and of press prerogatives and freedoms that all newspapers cherish." The statement also raises the possibility that the paper may release further documents in the future.
When contacted by the City Paper, Shribman referred to his previous statement and directed further inquiry to the paper's attorney.
CP was unable to retrieve the motion filed against the P-G; Scaife's attorneys filed it under the sealed divorce action. P-G attorney W. Thomas McGough Jr. of Reed Smith, wasn't sure if Scaife would try to hold the hearing in a closed courtroom, though he pledged it wouldn't happen "if we have anything to say about it."
"We're going to assume that any proceedings involving the Post-Gazette will be held in open court and we will have a reporter there to report on what happens," McGough says.
Scaife's sealed divorce proceedings were first documented in City Paper ["Private Dick," July 20, 2006]. Generally, legal papers filed in divorce proceedings are public documents, as are most records in any lawsuit. But Scaife's battle with his estranged wife, Margeret "Ritchie" Scaife, has been carried out behind closed doors, under the protection of a judge's seal. In the CP's 2006 story Paul McMasters, a First amendment expert with the non-partisan Freedom Forum said the sealing of divorce records is rare but it does happen as a "a courtesy most often extended to people of influence."
However, according to the Post-Gazette, for a short time at the end of August, the records were publicly available on the Web site of the Allegheny County Prothonotary's office, the record-keeper for civil court.
Among the highlights Roddy discovered there: The publisher was ordered to pay a whopping $725,000 a month in temporary spousal support. Additionally, the documents claim that Scaife has subsidized the Tribune-Review -- often criticized for parroting the political beliefs of its conservative publisher -- with more than $140 million over the past 15 years. Ritchie Scaife claims that the paper, which loses an estimated $20 to $30 million per year, is one of her husband's "hobbies" rather than a legitimate business.
When asked about the leak, prothonotary Michael Lamb said his office was running diagnostic tests on the system to determine exactly how the documents were exposed. For now, he suspects that the file was opened so that a brief could be added to the course record. Doing so requires the seal to be temporarily removed, and an employee may have forgotten to electronically re-seal it, thus making it open for public inspection. He said there didn't appear to be any "sabotage" afoot in unsealing the files or notifying the press -- though he notes that his office is still investigating.
"I'm certainly not trying to mitigate our own liability in this incident," Lamb says. "But I do think it's irresponsible of the paper to run a story based on documents that were sealed by the court."
Lamb says his office has already closed the security loophole.
Scaife's attorney, H. Yale Gutnick, did not return phone calls for comment at press time.
McGough says that Hertzberg's initial order to seal the case binds the involved parties. But it "has no effect on anyone else," he argues. Once they became publicly accessible online, he says, "they were put into the public domain [and] acquired legitimately and lawfully by the Post-Gazette."