Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Jacqui Redner can’t wait to see what Christmas gifts her sons, George and Josh, will get this year.
She is sure someone will get Josh, her sports-loving conspiracy theorist, an alien-themed ornament. No doubt George, her St. Patrick-loving first responder, will get something Irish or new firefighter items.
She bought the boys each a sign for their favorite NFL team. George gets one for the Philadelphia Eagles and Josh gets one for the Carolina Panthers.
But the gifts won’t be waiting under the family’s Christmas tree; they will be left at the men’s shared grave.
George “Reds” Redner III died in 2015 at age 27. Younger brother Josh died earlier this year at 28.
This year is the third Christmas that Redner and her husband, also named George, and their family will make their way to Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem to celebrate the holidays with George, and now Josh.
There will be a fresh-cut evergreen tree. Christmas-themed solar lights. Custom-made grave blankets featuring sports and firefighter themes. So many old, and new, ornaments, left not only by family, but friends.
“Every ornament tells a story and it’s a personal story that someone had, a story they had. A memory they had. They are precious to us,” Jacqui Redner said. “It’s another side we get to see that we didn’t know. Now I have those memories, too."Lower
Grave decorating, particularly on special holidays, is a practice with a long presence in American and European folklore, according to cultural and religious experts. Ancient Greeks put flowers at the gravesites of warriors. Mourners honored the U.S. Civil War dead by cleaning graves and leaving American flags and flowers. Mexican Catholics have long engaged in elaborate graveside decorating for All Souls Day.
“Regardless of real or perceived origins for these decorating practices, one notion hard to ignore is that the visible presence of others similarly engaged provides a sense of appropriateness and acceptability to maintaining a strong emotional tie with the deceased,” according to an academic paper presented at the American Folklore Society meeting in 1998.
“As everyone knows, holidays — particularly this time of year — can be very hard for those who grieve,” said Temple University religion professor Lucy Bregman, who teaches about death and dying.
“Grave visits and decorations are a reminder that the dead still are linked to the times and seasons of family life. For us, it is certainly better than to have a place set for them at the dinner table, when their absence is so visible.”
The grieving process is a highly individualized thing, said Marianne Kepler, a psychology professor at Bucks County Community College.
For people who experience sudden or a recent loss, just visiting a gravesite might stir up difficult or painful memories. In those cases, it’s understandable why someone might avoid visiting the cemetery, Kepler said.
Others might find visiting or elaborately decorating gravesites during the holidays gives them time to connect with, reflect on and honor loved ones and keep them a part of holiday traditions. But when holiday celebrations exclusively center on grave visits, it can be a warning sign that someone is stuck in the grieving process, Kepler added.
“Life is dynamic and life is changing,” Kepler said. “People leave and people come. Births come, people come into the family, new friendships, and it’s important to keep that freshness there.”
The first Christmas after George died, the family had not yet had his headstone placed, Redner said. So they bought a small, live Christmas tree to mark his grave. Redner then put out a post on social media telling friends about the tree and asking them to put an ornament on it that reminded them of George.
Redner and her husband left the first ornament: a beer mug decorated with shamrocks. More were quickly hung — a jeweled shamrock, a firefighter’s helmet, a fire truck. The family left zip-ties in a plastic bag at the grave so people could secure the ornaments to the tree.
“Every time we came up there, there was another ornament,” she said. “It does help to see the ornaments.”
Video: Parents mark Christmas with their late sons
The family has kept George a part of its family Christmas tree, as well. The first holiday after his death, after Josh and her other three sons put up the Christmas tree that year, Josh handed his mom a tomato ornament, Redner said.
“Why did you get a tomato ornament?” she asked.
“We’re going to start a new tradition,” Josh replied. He vowed that each Christmas they would add a vegetable ornament to the tree for George.
“It made me laugh,” his mother said.
Redner said she’s not sure why Josh suggested vegetables, but the family thinks it’s funny so they continue the tradition. Last year, a jalapeño pepper was added. This year, it’s a pickle.
Redner decorates at George’s grave for most major holidays: Halloween, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Independence Day. She always finds something new that a friend or family member left there. Peanut-butter cups around Halloween. Shot glasses and green beads for St. Patrick’s Day.
Her father is also buried at Resurrection. She now finds herself visiting his grave more often and decorating it for the holidays.
“I used to avoid the cemetery,” she said. “Now, I’m up there all the time. I go around the corner and see him.”
Friends and family love the tradition and adding to the collection, which remains until Dec. 30, when the family packs it away until next year. Like most cemeteries, Resurrection has rules about holiday grave decorations, and they must be removed by Jan. 1.
Several dozen other graves were seen to be covered with decorations Friday.
While it doesn’t stop the pain of her family’s loss, it does give them someone else to focus on for a little while, at least.
“It’s our way of making them part of here,” Redner said. “They’re still making me smile. There is always a new story every time.”
Three years ago, Lower Southampton supervisors learned their then-township solicitor, Michael Savona, could not oversee township business involving a Warminster developer, a longtime client of the attorney’s law firm. So, the board did what many others across the state routinely do in such situations: It appointed an outside attorney to handle the matters that posed a conflict of interest for Savona. But what happened next wasn’t routine, according to legal ethics attorneys. Savona remained involved in three County Builders land use projects in 2014 and 2015, according to emails and other documents obtained through a Right-to-Know request by this news organization as part of its ongoing investigation related to the federal Lower Southampton corruption case. According to the emails and documents, Savona reviewed and prepared documents for the township work that the conflict attorney Robert P. Hoopes was hired to handle. Savona was also included as a recipient on emails where the three County Builder projects were discussed by others including Lower Southampton administrators and consultants, as well as another Eastburn and Gray attorney representing County Builders Inc. in its Lower Southampton land use proposals in 2014 and 2015. The revelation about Savona’s continued involvement with County Builders Inc. — despite a publicly acknowledged conflict of interest with the Warminster developer — comes after new allegations of influence peddling involving three former Lower Southampton public officials as outlined in the latest superseding grand jury indictment released Dec. 5. Hoopes, 70, of Doylestown, is one of those former public officials facing federal charges including witness tampering, bribery, extortion and money laundering. After serving as conflict attorney, Lower Southampton supervisors unanimously hired Hoopes as the township’s first Public Safety Director, a position he held for 11 months before he was terminated in January. Savona resigned from Eastburn and Gray at the law firm’s request Wednesday, according to a written statement the firm emailed to this news organization Wednesday evening. Three of at least four Bucks and Montgomery county municipalities where Savona was township solicitor cut ties with him Thursday. According to the Eastburn and Gray statement, Savona — who has not been criminally charged in the Lower Southampton probe — was the “subject” of an investigation related to the alleged criminal conduct of “certain elected officials” in a municipality he previously represented. “Mr. Savona assured Eastburn and Gray that he was not involved and had not done anything wrong. Unfortunately, Eastburn and Gray believes as of today (Dec. 6, 2017) that this misrepresentation is inaccurate,” according to the statement. Before he resigned from Eastburn and Gray, Savona declined an interview request involving work he did while Hoopes was conflict attorney for County Builders Inc. and he did not respond to a list of emailed questions including if the supervisors obtained an informed consent waiver for any phase of representation involving County Builders. He also didn’t respond to follow up phone calls and emails seeking an interview. Attorney Richard Sheppard, who is representing Savona, declined comment Thursday, citing ongoing federal probe of alleged corruption among former Lower Southampton public officials. He added his client has been cooperating with investigators. Neither Savona nor his law firm, Eastburn and Gray, a prominent Doylestown firm, submitted bills for legal services involving County Builders projects in 2014 or 2015, according to a review of billing statements requested under the Right to Know Act. This news organization was unsuccessful in multiple attempts through voice mail messages and email to Hoopes and his defense attorney, as well as Kevin Reilly, a vice-president for County Builders Inc., a longtime client of Eastburn and Gray. Lower Southampton Supervisors Chairman Keith Wesley said in an email response to questions from this news organization that he was not aware of an informed consent waiver with County Builders. A review of supervisor meeting minutes for 2014 available online do not show public discussion or vote on a conflict waiver for Savona involving County Builders. “We were not informed of any need for such a waiver,” Westley wrote. “I can say there was no such agreement in place nor was there a requirement for the township to call for one. I would think that conflict counsel worked on any conflict files.” When government boards are faced with conflict situations involving legal representatives, it’s often resolved by either appointing a conflict attorney or obtaining the informed consent waiver, said Jennifer Ellis, a Pennsylvania attorney specializing in legal ethics who also represents attorneys who need ethical assistance. Typically, boards won’t do both, she said. “Why spend the money on conflict counsel just to waive it?” Ellis said. Absent an informed consent waiver, Savona “should not have been involved on either side” of the applications after the conflict counsel was hired, and his law office should have taken steps to make sure Savona was kept out-of-the-loop, Ellis said.
ICYMI: According to the emails and documents, then-township solicitor Michael Savona reviewed and prepared documents for the #LowerSouthampton work that the conflict attorney Robert P. Hoopes was hired to handle. http://bit.ly/2khvFNx
Need for conflict attorneyAt a Sept. 23, 2014, supervisors meeting, where Hoopes was hired as conflict counsel, Savona gave as the reason the board needed a conflict attorney is that his law firm has long represented County Builders Inc. “so he would have a conflict participating in those applications before the board,” according to the board meeting minutes. At the time, County Builders had at least three projects in the planning stage; supervisors later approved all the projects. ‒ Emerald Pointe, a 32-unit townhouse development in the 500 block of Old Street Road, received preliminary and final plan approval Nov. 12, 2014. ‒ Shoppes at Emerald Walk, a controversial commercial development plan including a Wawa at Street and Philmont Avenue, received final plan approval Feb. 25, 2015. ‒ 531 W. Street Road, a 48-unit townhouse development near Westview Avenue, received preliminary and final plan approval Aug. 12, 2015. Over the next 11 months, Hoopes, who has known experience in civil and criminal defense law, billed for 17.8 hours at $350 an hour for his work on the three projects, according to copies of invoices and other documents obtained through a Right-to-Know request. County Builders Inc. paid Hoopes $6,264 from its project escrow funds, which is standard practice for municipal professional services involving land use applications, Township Manager John McMenamin said. Legal bills that Hoopes submitted for his County Builders Inc. work show most of the hours he billed — 13.8 hours — involved meetings with township administrators, County Builders representatives and “prep and attend” supervisor meetings for the projects. Hoopes billed County Builders only three times for paperwork related to the projects, according to his legal bills. They include $175 for 50-minutes of work preparing a letter for conditional sign approval for Emerald Walk. Neither Savona nor his law firm, Eastburn and Gray, submitted bills to Lower Southampton for legal services involving County Builders Inc. development projects in 2014 or 2015, according to a review of legal bill statements and escrow documents requested under the Right to Know Act.
Email trailBut emails obtained by this news organization show that Savona continued working on all three projects and he also prepared documents including developer’s agreements, security agreements and construction escrow estimates, work that Hoopes should have done as conflict counsel, according to municipal attorneys interviewed. It is unknown if Savona’s continued involvement had an impact on the supervisors’ decisions involving the development plans. No current or former supervisors received or were mentioned in emails obtained by this news organization involving Savona, Hoopes, and County Builders Inc. projects. Savona was mentioned in emails involving County Builders project such as aDec. 8, 2014 email involving the Emerald Walk commercial development plan. In the email, County Builders’ Vice President Reilly asked his attorney John VanLuvanee if the plans should be put on the January 2015 planning commission agenda for final approval. “I mentioned to Mike Savona and he said he would discuss with you as well,” Reilly wrote in the email. Savona was also frequently copied on emails including those Hoopes received. Reilly sent Hoopes and Lower Southampton Township Engineer John Genovesi on March 4, 2015 under the subject line: Emerald Walk Commercial escrow and developer’s agreements. In the body of the email, Reilly wrote: “Mike/Bob can you please prepare developer’s agreements for this project?” Five days later, on March 9, 2015, in an email Reilly asked Hoopes: “How are you making out with the approval letter for Emerald Walk Commercial.” Savona was copied on the email. Two days later, on March 11, 2015, Savona wrote to Reilly asking if the public improvements estimate been approved. “We need that for the (developer’s) agreements.” Hoopes was copied on the email. According to his legal bills, Hoopes billed County Builders $770 for 2.2 hours on March 9, 2015 for “prep approval letter.”On April 13, 2015, Savona wrote to Reilly and Genovesi about the construction escrow estimates for the Shoppes at Emerald Walk. Hoopes’ name was not among those sent the email. “Kevin, attached you will find the proposed Site Development Agreement, Site Improvement Security Agreement and Storm Water Operations and Maintenance Agreement for Phase II of Emerald Walk, along with the approved April 9, 2015 escrow tabulation,” Savona wrote in the April 13, 2015 email. ″...These agreements are ready for signature.”Four days later, on April 17, 2015, Reilly mentioned Savona in an email to Genovesi about the Emerald Pointe Construction escrow: “I would like to ask Mike Savona to prepare the developer’s agreements after you have approved the escrow.”A copy of an undated 2015 site development agreement for Emerald Pointe states it was prepared by “Michael Savona, Eastburn and Gray” and it also requests the document be recorded with the county and returned to Savona. Hoopes’ name also did not appear on the recipient list for an email that Savona wrote to Lower Southampton Director of Licenses and Inspections Carol Drioli about the 531 W. Street Road project on Aug. 24, 2015, 12 days after the board approved the plans. “Attached is a draft approval letter for 531 West Street Road for Bob Hoopes’ signature. Let me know if you have any questions once you review it,”Savona wrote in the email. An email chain on the West Street Road approval letter continued the next day — Aug. 25, 2015 — between Savona, Reilly, Drioli and VanLuvanee. Hoopes’ email was not included in the exchange. Savona wrote to Drioli telling her that the updated review letter that he prepared was attached; VanLuvanee responded to Savona and Drioli that he had suggested changes to the approval letter. Later, that day, Savona wrote to Drioli and VanLuvanee that he incorporated the changes into the final letter, which was attached. “Please forward to Bob for signature,” Savona added in the email.Hours later, Reilly offered Savona his “redlined comments” for the final letter, according to an email. Almost immediately, Savona responded in an email:“Final version is attached. Please send to Bob.”Hoopes charged $874 for 2.4 hours of work on the 531 W. Street Road project done on Aug. 25 and 26, 2015, according to his billing statement. Under description of the work, he wrote, “Met with Carol to go over points for letter”and “prep letter and email to all concerned.”
Rules of conduct
Under the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney with a conflict can continue representing a client only if an informed consent waiver is obtained from both clients, according to multiple attorneys specializing legal ethics and professional conduct.
“Our legal ethics rules are meant to protect the public from malfeasance on the part of lawyers. The conflict rule exists to protect clients from a lawyer taking on a client who is in an adverse position to an already existing client, or from the lawyer taking on a client with whom he has an adverse position,” said Ellis, a Pennsylvania attorney specializing in legal ethics who also represents attorneys who need ethical assistance. Attorneys found to have violated the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct face potential consequences that range from a private written admonishment up to suspension and disbarment. Former staff writer Tyler Miles contributed to this story.