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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Heinzes Fight Bid to Unseal Estate Records

Attorneys for Kerry's wife battle newspapers over details of probate after first husband died.

September 24, 2004|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — Heinz family attorneys argued in Pittsburgh court Thursday that estate records related to Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, should remain sealed from public inspection.

When Heinz Kerry's first husband, Sen. John Heinz, died in a 1991 airplane crash, the family obtained an order to seal the probate records within 24 hours of his death.

Heinz was one of the wealthiest people in Congress and in Pennsylvania, leaving a fortune to his widow and three sons.

Since his death, Heinz Kerry has become the leader of the family's large philanthropic enterprise.

It includes three nonprofit corporations with assets of $1.3 billion and supports a wide range of social causes, the environment, education and the arts.

The Times and several other newspapers had asked the Orphan's Court in Pittsburgh on July 9 to unseal the Heinz estate records, asserting that such records are normally open to public inspection and that the family never made a substantive case for why the records should have been sealed in 1991.

Although the contents of the probate file are unknown, they could contain information about how the deceased senator, a Republican, wanted his family's assets managed and what causes he wanted to support.

Heinz Kerry, contacted through the Kerry campaign, declined to comment on her motivations for keeping the records private. Earlier this year, The Times estimated that she is worth about $1 billion, in addition to the money in the nonprofit corporations used for charity.

The Times was joined in its legal case by the Allentown Morning Call, like The Times owned by Tribune Co., and three other Pennsylvania newspapers.

Heinz estate attorney Gregory Jordan asserted that the court lacked jurisdiction to remove its own seal since the estate was closed in 1998, some seven years after the seal was first imposed.

Times attorney Kelli Sager told Orphan's Court Judge Frank Lucchino that the legal maneuvers of the Heinz attorneys were aimed at delaying the matter until after the presidential election Nov. 2.

Sager said the public has a constitutional right to court records, particularly because they might have some bearing on a presidential election.

But Jordan argued that under Pennsylvania law, an outside party has only 30 days after a civil case closes to come before the court and make a motion. He said the press had seven years to request removal of the seal before the case was ultimately closed, but failed to act.

"What's done is done," Jordan said.

Jordan never provided any reason why Heinz Kerry, an executor in the estate, wanted to keep the records closed or whether the records would have any bearing on the Kerry presidential bid.

"I haven't talked about the presidential election, because I don't think it has anything to do with this case," Jordan said. At another point, Jordan told the court, "Let Sen. Heinz and his affairs rest in peace."

Lucchino kept the hearing on the narrow legal issue of whether the court has the authority to unseal the records, but at one point asked rhetorically, "Don't we start with the premise that in a free democracy that all of these records of the court are open?" He also questioned whether the sealing order was an internal court administrative issue that was never closed with the case itself.

Lucchino said he would act promptly, but he left the impression that it was unlikely the records could be unsealed before this fall's election. Even if he immediately rules that he does have authority to unseal the records, the Heinz attorneys would have 20 days to make a detailed response and then potentially hold discovery and have oral arguments.

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