Jeff Newman Goes From Reporting the News to Making It
Where do you train to learn First Amendment rights? The National Enquirer, of course
Published in 2004 Massachusetts Super Lawyers magazine
on August 14, 2004
Updated on December 7, 2015
Jeffrey A. Newman wakes up at 4 a.m. one summer Monday, gets out of bed, runs a comb across his head. Moving stealthily so as not to awaken his wife, Jan, or his 15-year-old daughter, Haley, he throws on gym clothes, skips breakfast and drives from his Marblehead home to the Boston Athletic Club.
Arriving by 5:25 a.m., Newman joins a group of club members on their weekly walk through the streets of South Boston. A burly guy with curly gray hair, a mustache, blazing blue eyes and what a clubmate calls a “savage tan,” he leans forward as he walks, like a bear rumbling through a forest.
Newman returns to the club at 7:15 a.m. and is greeted by a photographer. “Are they here because you’re such a stud?” Dan Gallagher, a lawyer and former copy editor, calls out as Newman is photographed lifting weights. “Did you say lawyer magazine or geriatric magazine?”
Newman, whose wife was raised Catholic and who himself could be described as a kind of Jewish bard, joins a great chorus of laughter.
“I love the workouts,” he says, as he disembarks the elevator at the 20th-floor offices of the nation’s 16th largest law firm, Greenberg Traurig, located down the street from South Station. “They’re the only thing that keeps me sane. And I love the diversity of people at the gym. There are lots of blue-collar guys and executives. They all share the same work ethic. Of course, you have to take a lot of ribbing.”
Gesturing around his spacious office, with Casablanca and Phantom of the Opera posters and a view of Boston Harbor, he says, “This is a rarefied place, an illusion. I keep reminding myself that staying out in the community is more important than legal research.”
If there is anything other than hard work that explains Newman’s wide-reaching success — ranging from media rights to clerical wrongs — it is his immersion in the real world. Newman likes people, relates to them, understands them, gets them to open up to him in depositions and on the witness stand.
He grew up in Newton’s Oak Hill section, which had housing for veterans. His late father, Jackson J. Newman, a senior sergeant in World War II, was an England-based mechanic in the Army Air Corps who sent Spitfires and B-49s on bombing raids. “It was a very dangerous job, because he had to work around the clock and test-fly planes that weren’t always fully repaired,” his son says. “Sometimes he’d come in without an engine or with the plane smoking.”
Newman’s father later ran a trucking company in Roxbury. His mother, Shirlee, has written dozens of books, including a trilogy on slavery. Jeff himself was selectively bookish at Newton South High School but developed a reading habit as a communications major at UMass.
After graduation he spent seven months as a tour guide in Hawaii. Summering on Nantucket, he ran into newspaper editor Marie Geffin, who offered him a job as a writer-photographer for the Inquirer and Mirror. A natural journalist with a nose for news, Newman heard about young Joseph Kennedy’s auto accident that left a woman paralyzed, and he arrived on the scene ahead of the police. Newman not only got to see the evidence untouched, but took photos that were used around the world.
At his next job, with the Dedham Daily Transcript, Newman wrote a story about a woman who swore she’d seen a flying saucer. The National Enquirer heard about the story and hired him.
“It’s amazing how episodic life can be,” Newman says. “I wanted a different experience and travel.”
With The National Enquirer, he got that and then some. Newman got to profile Norman Mailer and Mickey Spillane. He had a seven-hour interview with mass murderer Charles Manson. Working on a story about Gary Gilmore (the subject of Mailer’s Executioner’s Song), he found Gilmore’s girlfriend, Nicole Barrett, passed out on the couch after she and Gilmore tried to stage a double suicide, she at an apartment in Provo, Utah, and he in prison.
Five years into his employment at the Enquirer, Newman went to Pittsburgh to write about Carnegie Mellon University’s voice recognition software. “I sat down on a bench, fell asleep and woke up disoriented after dark. I told my editor I had had enough. I had been on the road almost a year straight and I couldn’t figure out where I was. The lawyers I had been seeing were working on things with more continuous, lasting effects than the stories I was writing, and on things that were more interesting, too.
“Looking back, I don’t see working for the Enquirer as a taint. They had a fact checker for every story. Sometimes the way the editors used words and headlines gave you the wrong impression, and some of the medical sources weren’t credentialed.”
But Newman still had the writing bug. Before entering Boston College Law School in the fall of 1979, he spent the summer in Afghanistan and Pakistan, writing stories about and taking pictures of the USSR-Taliban war. “I earned a lot of money,” he says, “because no one wanted to go in.” Even while studying law, he wrote a monthly Q&A legal column for the Boston Herald that was so well read it became weekly for 14 years after his graduation.
Newman headed straight from academe to the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office for $18,000 a year — a $47,000 cut from the Enquirer. Typically indefatigable, he would sometimes prosecute four or five cases a week. He met Jan, then a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines, at a Marblehead party given by another assistant D.A. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “She gave me a fake telephone number. She did that to the wrong person. I found out her real number and kept bugging her until she agreed to go out with me.”
Newman went into private practice after a year at the D.A.’s office. The 1976 bombing at Suffolk County Courthouse — another one of those episodic events — started him in a different direction. There had been a warning call to the courthouse, but people entering the building didn’t get the word. Newman represented Edmund Narine, a cab driver who lost a leg, and won a jury verdict of $1.75 million.
After that win, Newman was besieged by people in need (though the decision was later reversed on appeal). One woman told him how she had begged the landlord to fix the door to the building she worked in. He failed to do so. After she was knocked out and raped by someone who broke in, Newman won $1.3 million in damages for her, and she collected $800,000 because of an $800,000-$300,000 high-low agreement.
Newman pursued other premise liability and abuse cases into the new millennium. Then came the Catholic church clergy sexabuse cases that rocked Boston. Working at his own firm, Newman & Ponsetto, Newman was retained by some 120 victims, and when he joined Greenberg Traurig in mid-2002, he assisted in overseeing an additional 150. The 100-odd priests charged included such notorious names as Paul Mahan, George J. Foley, Peter Frost and Robert Gale.
He went 24 months without vacations, weekends or much sleep. Co-counsel Roderick MacLeish Jr. called him The General. He suffered eye infections and was so preoccupied that he began using Catholic terms at Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El, where he was president.
Child-abuse cases — and particularly those involving clergy — are especially difficult to prosecute. Because they often occur years after the alleged crimes, there’s no DNA evidence. A young man who may be psychologically impaired is matched against a man of the cloth. To fortify his cases, Newman scoured scores of depositions, medical records, forensic psychiatrists’ evaluations and police reports, all the while encouraging reluctant victims to testify. In 2002, the family of Gregory Ford came forward, charging Father Paul Shanley with abuse at Newton’s St. Jean the Evangelist Parish.
Newman began hammering away at Shanley’s defense that he had no private access to children. “After interviewing 35 of Greg’s fellow students, a number of whom no one else had found,” Newman says, “I videotaped a kid on the Cape, Brendan Moriarty, who said, ‘Greg Ford asked [Shanley] to go to the bathroom and he left, went down to use the facilities. And it was maybe five or six minutes later that I asked Ms. Bennett if I could use the bathroom and she said sure. … As I started to get near it, I believe it was Greg Ford and Father Shanley having a discussion, but Father Shanley seemed angry, he seemed mad at him and he was raising his voice.’”
Wondering why they were in the bathroom, Moriarty turned on his heels and retreated to the classroom. Afterward, he recalled seeing Greg Ford “very removed … kind of zoned out.”
“A woman remembered Shanley grabbing Greg and taking him to his rectory,” Newman added. On April 5, 2004, the case of Gregory Ford was settled, along with three others, with Ford himself receiving more than $1 million.
“He’s one of the best-prepared lawyers I’ve ever seen,” says Paul Finn, who mediated the case and helped broker a $90 million settlement between 550 victims and the Boston Archdiocese. “He gets to the heart of the matter by making a causal connection between the incident and the injury that led to the claim of damages.”
“I try to match my style to the person I’m interviewing,” Newman says. “If they’re nice but scared, I’m low-key, friendly, conversational. You may have to be tougher with a businessman.
“Jurors don’t want things rammed down their throats,” he continues. “I talk to them without notes, watching for signals from their eyes. If you call them by their first names, they’ll usually look at you. People’s eyes tend to move in the same direction. If they go in a different direction, they may be hiding something. Or there’s something they want to say but can’t. If they start sweating, you have to probe more.”
It was afternoon now, and Newman was heading to New England Cable Network (NECN) for one of his regular updates on First Amendment issues and other topics to the station’s staff. “This fits me,” he says, piling into his Volvo station wagon. “And so does this,” he adds, brandishing an inexpensive Timex watch with a Velco strap. “It keeps on ticking. I wear shoes until they wear out. We’re a throw-away society. I don’t like it.”
At NECN, Newman’s address to the afternoon staff was long, complicated and largely pessimistic. Among his points: You can’t record people against their will in their homes, even through the window. The difference between public and private property “isn’t so clear.” Nor is the definition of a public figure. Keep careful notes and date them. Be careful of confidential informants; they may have an agenda.
Newman closed his presentation by staging a hypothetical case using station manager Charlie Kravetz as the volunteer patsy. The case involved a businessman who was suspended from his job after a story was aired accusing him of an impropriety that occurred 24 years earlier. The charges were based on a memo given the station by a woman who knew the businessman. Newman began asking Kravetz how the station gathered information and checked facts. In the end, as per their script, Kravetz admitted NECN didn’t check the veracity of the woman who made the charges. As it turned out, she was a spurned lover of the CEO.
On the ride back to his office, Newman cited a real-life case at NECN. Reporting a story about alleged sexual misconduct by an athlete, NECN reporter Steve Safran quoted a confidential source who claimed the alleged victim was lying. Safran was subpoenaed by a party in the case, and a Superior Court judge told him to name the source. Newman asked the judge to wait until an appeal was filed. The appeals court overturned the order, stating that the information could be gathered from other sources.
“I called the confidential source and asked him to end Steve’s nightmare. ‘We might have some news for you,’ the source said.
“The next day the case was settled. All along, the station stood behind the reporter. It was a great win.”
At Greenberg Traurig, Newman still receives calls from families of abused children and practices commercial litigation, which he finds fascinating. “I still haven’t reached my pinnacle,” he insists, “still haven’t found my niche.”
Daniel Shorr once described Edward R. Murrow as a man who considered everyone he met more interesting than himself. A kindred spirit, Newman asks almost as many questions as he answers. His favorite book is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. He asks a reporter’s recommendation (T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) and dutifully writes it down.
It is late afternoon now, but Newman has miles to go before he sleeps. He has a conference call about commercial litigation, a meeting with his new secretary, a discussion about the firm doing part-time work with a re-insurance company in Bermuda, an hour at home, and a 7:30 to 9 p.m. board meeting to break in the new president of his temple.
“When do you go to sleep?” he’s asked.
“Around 11, 11:30.”
“You mean you get four and a half hours of sleep?”
“Four and a half to five. I take a nap every Sunday.”