Sealed With a Dis

A powerful Bay Area trial lawyer with political connections tries to keep details of his messy divorce from going public

It's safe to say that Joseph Cotchett, the big-time Bay Area trial lawyer and Democratic Party campaign donor, didn't want this story to be written. In fact, Cotchett and his attorney have gone to great lengths to keep details of his messy divorce out of the public eye. To wit: trying to seal court records in which his soon-to-be-ex-wife Victoria essentially accuses him of being a hard-drinking daddy dearest.

For those of you not familiar with the name, Cotchett is one of Gavin Newsom's longtime business partners in Plumpjack and he's sometimes described as one of the best trial lawyers in the country. The 68-year-old Hillsborough resident is currently representing outed CIA officer Valerie Plame in her lawsuit against key members of the Bush administration including Dick Cheney.

Cotchett, who served many years as Gov. Gray Davis' appointee to the state park and recreation commission, is also a major national political player. He has personally donated $68,900 to federal candidates and political action committees this year alone, according to the Federal Election Commission. A couple of months ago, he hosted a fundraiser for presidential hopeful (and fellow trial lawyer) John Edwards. Cotchett has been rumored to have his own political aspirations; a few years ago, his name came up as a possible Democratic candidate for attorney general.

Was Cotchett trying to seal embarrassing divorce records to protect his political future?

Victoria Cotchett, an art critic, filed for divorce in San Mateo County Superior Court in September, but the real fireworks in the Cotchett divorce erupted in March over custody of their 17-year-old daughter. The bulldog trial lawyer actually fired the first salvo, accusing his wife of being an overly permissive parent who let her teen daughter get tattoos, body piercings, and drive the BMW without a license. For good measure, he accused Victoria of being addicted to prescription pills (which she adamantly denied).

He must have sensed that his wife would have a nasty response because he also filed an application to seal records involving child custody and visitation around the same time. If approved, the ex parte application would have meant sealing anything he and his wife said about each other in court records while fighting for the teen. Cotchett's attorney, Timothy Wright, contended that the records needed to be sealed to protect the daughter's privacy. Victoria Cotchett's lawyers retorted that Mr. Cotchett was attempting to seal custody declarations to get "free reign to attack" the Mrs. while shielding from the public anything she may say about him in her defense.

And, boy, did she have things to say about her ex.

In her March 28 sworn declaration, she accused Cotchett of being a name-calling tyrant, one who would push his kids' faces into their plates, or pull them away from the table by their hair when they didn't finish their meals. She also described him as a foul-mouthed heavy drinker who averaged one bottle of wine each evening and drove with a plastic glass of wine, sometimes when the girls were in the car with him. She claimed her hubby liked to walk around the house naked — even as the couple's two daughters grew older and became uncomfortable with his nudity. When she asked him to stop, he allegedly screamed he would do "whatever he fucking well pleased," according to her court declaration. (Cotchett filed depositions of a nanny and a housekeeper who said they never witnessed any sort of abuse.)

Cotchett wouldn't be the first rich and powerful man to try and seal his divorce records. In recent years, billionaire supermarket magnate Ron Burkle — a regular target of the New York Post's Page Six — has tried to keep his financial records secret while sparring with his ex in a California court. Cotchett and his lawyers have also pushed for a protective order to keep financial information from the public eye, echoing many arguments used by Burkle — things like the fear of identity theft. His camp argued that the judge could examine financial information and determine "what records should be maintained under seal."

Attempts to seal family court records are the kinds of maneuvers that make First Amendment organizations, media attorneys, and women's groups fume. Helen Grieco, the executive director of the California National Organization for Women, says she's had it with high-profile and powerful men who profess to be progressive in public while trying to squash information about bad behavior in their private lives. "It's hypocritical, it's unethical, and it's wrong," Grieco said. She added that sealing records is often about hiding "what they're really worth, or what they've done."

In other words, openness in the courts isn't just about ogling the meltdown of a super-rich couple, or simply allowing snoopy reporters to pry into people's private lives — even though the Cotchetts' discussion over a horse account (to maintain the family's horses) and Victoria's alimony request (more than $240,000 in temporary spousal support alone) did offer quite a window into their world.

And in the Cotchett case, San Mateo County Commissioner Richard DuBois seemed to think that window should remain open. He promptly denied Cotchett's ex parte application to seal records. After we made a flurry of phone calls in advance of a scheduled May 15 custody hearing, Timothy Wright, Cotchett's attorney, informed us that the warring couple had settled the issue in mediation and "there's really no story here." Wright then reminded us in multiple letters, including hand-delivered and certified mail, that issues of child custody and visitation were "totally and amicably resolved."

We made several calls to both of the Cotchetts, but heard back from neither. While the court records might not be sealed, apparently their lips are.

 
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