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Trial Date Set, Bob Woodward Subpoenaed in Sidwell Friends Sex Counselor Case
A rare, salacious lawsuit against the elite DC private school drags high-profile Washingtonians into unwanted limelight and airs graphic e-mails from the psychologist who taught sex ed at the Obama daughters’ school.
The exceedingly messy lawsuit between Arthur “Terry” Newmyer and Sidwell Friends School is headed for trial—and the circle of high-profile Washingtonians wrapped up in the case is expanding. At a hearing last week, DC Superior Court judge Michael Rankin set a trial date of November 18, 2013.
Newmyer first filed suit against Sidwell and its former psychologist in May 2011. He claims the psychologist had an affair with his wife while treating his daughter, then five, and that Sidwell took “flagrant and outrageous actions” that allowed the “open sexual relationship.”
For Sidwell—an elite private school in DC with an annual tuition of around $34,000—the lawsuit is an embarrassing airing of dirty laundry, something it normally goes to great lengths to avoid. The school’s parents, students, and alumni include many members of Washington’s most prominent families. President Obama’s two daughters attend Sidwell, as do Vice President Biden’s grandchildren; Chelsea Clinton and Al Gore III both attended the school, as did the children of cabinet secretaries, journalists, business leaders, senators, and congressmen, among others.
Newmyer’s lawsuit always had the potential to rope in some of the high-profile families who knew of the affair or whose children had been in the care of the accused psychologist, James Huntington, who also taught sex education to sixth-grade students during the year one of the Obama daughters was in that grade. That potential turned into a subpoena for Elsa Walsh, wife of journalist Bob Woodward.
Last April, Newmyer subpoenaed all of Walsh’s communications involving Huntington and Sidwell—especially those related to Huntington’s handling of a bullying incident. Walsh and Woodward have resisted the subpoena.
At a hearing last month, Newmyer’s lawyer, Kerry Scanlon, argued that the Woodward/Walsh e-mails would show that Sidwell administrators knew Huntington was conducting himself unprofessionally.
Judge Rankin has ruled that Woodward and Walsh have to turn over some of their e-mails.
Newmyer’s lawsuit has had the scent of scandal from the day it was filed on May 12, 2011. Newmyer’s complaint included e-mails with intimate details of the affair between Huntington and Tara Mehrbach, then Newmyer’s wife. They have since divorced.
And from the start, the case has raised two questions:
First, why would Terry Newmyer bring a case that could breach his child’s privacy and expose graphic details of his ex-wife’s infidelity? Newmyer is a Sidwell alum and comes from a prominent Washington family that has given generously to the school. His complaint asks for $10 million in damages.
And second, why would Sidwell not settle the case rather than allow the seamy story to play out in court? Newmyer, according to sources, attempted to settle the matter before he sued. Sidwell declined. Once Newmyer filed, the school then moved to dismiss the suit in favor of arbitration. The school requires parents to sign a student-enrollment contract that includes an agreement that any disputes between the student or family and Sidwell will be handled by a neutral arbitrator. Moreover, the contract says, “Any material filed with the arbitrator, the contents of all depositions or testimony, all documents produced during the course of the arbitration, and any remedy imposed or damages awarded by the arbitrator shall remain confidential.”
Had the court granted Sidwell’s motion, much of the information that now sits in public records would have remained private. But the motion was denied—Newmyer neither signed the contract nor authorized his then-wife to do so on his behalf, so it was determined that he was not bound by its terms.
Huntington has countersued Newmyer for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things. He requested compensatory and punitive damages totaling $13 million. Portions of the countersuit have been dismissed.
Details of the affair and the lawsuit are recounted in court documents filed in DC and Florida—where Newmyer and Mehrbach were legal residents. They were married on September 16, 2001; Newmyer is 20 years older than Mehrbach. Though they lived in Palm Beach, they had “multiple houses” in the Washington area and a house in Maine, according to Florida court documents. Newmyer filed for divorce in 2009. At the time, the couple had two daughters under the age of five.
Instead of divorcing, they signed a settlement agreement that would allow Mehrbach and the children to move to Washington while Newmyer remained in Palm Beach. They agreed to have a commuter marriage, according to Newmyer.
In September 2009, their older child started pre-kindergarten at Sidwell. Though Newmyer was an alumnus and a financial supporter of the school, he didn’t think the school would challenge his daughter. According to court documents, he was concerned she would be bored and “lose her advanced learning abilities at a young age.” But Mehrbach wanted to send her to Sidwell. Newmyer suggested Mehrbach meet with school administrators to insist they provide activities suited to her advanced skill level.
In January 2010, Sidwell’s staff psychologist, James Huntington, came to Mehrbach’s house to evaluate her daughter. He watched her play and read and asked Mehrbach a series of questions, according to court documents. The next day, a Saturday, Huntington and Mehrbach met over drinks to discuss his recommendations. Mehrbach then e-mailed Newmyer to report that Huntington had advised that their daughter needed an enriched curriculum.
Sometime between the end of January and the beginning of February, Huntington and Mehrbach began a sexual relationship. Huntington, who was divorced, had a daughter at Sidwell in the same class as Mehrbach’s child. They would arrange play dates, according to Newmyer’s complaint, so Huntington could professionally evaluate Merhbach’s daughter. The play dates also gave the psychologist a chance to play around with Mehrbach. Their relationship, according to Newmyer’s complaint, became public knowledge at Sidwell.
Huntington’s ex-wife, Liza Himmelman, questioned the affair. A child and adolescent psychologist, she warned her ex-husband that his relationship with Mehrbach was harming both of their daughters. Huntington even repeated his ex-wife’s concerns in an e-mail to Mehrbach:
“Do you really want that, Jack?” he quoted his ex-wife as writing. “When there are so many women out there, safer women, that might not cost you your reputation and job to have a relationship with? Is sex with her and are her blowjobs really worth that much risk you are taking?”
“I said yes,” Huntington wrote to Mehrbach.
During the course of the affair, Huntington sent a number of sexually explicit e-mails to Mehrbach from his Sidwell account—sometimes in the middle of the workday. His e-mails, according to Newmyer’s complaint, graphically recounted their encounters, including oral and anal sex, role-playing, and “manic rubbing and touching when [Huntington is] under the influence.”
In a March 4, 2010, exchange excerpted in Newmyer’s complaint, Huntington e-mailed Mehrbach expressing his desire “to be busy with [her] body,” and when she called to discuss it but didn’t reach him, his follow-up e-mail explained why: “Your call enabled me to kick out some 8th grade girls from my room. They were winners from Twin Day, so they were eating their prizes in here and talking about male P.E. teachers that try to hit on them.”
At the time of that e-mail—and for much of the duration of the affair during the 2009-2010 school year—Huntington taught sex education to Sidwell sixth graders, during which time First Daughter Malia Obama was in the sixth grade. Typically, the class is mandatory for all sixth graders, according to former students.
In one of the e-mails included in the complaint, Huntington wonders whether he should discuss the affair with Newmyer’s daughter. “Do I talk about masturbating on your face or your marital situation with Terry … ? Decisions, decisions, decisions.”
According to the complaint, “on two occasions when a snow storm knocked the power out, Huntington and Tara took his three children and her two children to the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Washington. When checking into the hotel both times, they asked for adjoining rooms so that they could ‘fool around’ while the children were sleeping.”
Liza Himmelman Huntington told Terry Newmyer about the affair in March 2010. Newmyer confronted Mehrbach. Three months later, Newmyer refiled for divorce in Florida.
Beginning in February 2010, Sidwell was forced to deal with a bullying incident that took place at the school. Huntington, as the school counselor, met with many students, including the daughter of Bob Woodward and Elsa Walsh. According to Newmyer, Woodward and Walsh were not pleased with the way Huntington handled the matter, and they registered their displeasure with Sidwell via e-mail.
Newmyer charges that Huntington “violated the code of ethics governing psychologists” when he discussed the Woodward matter with his lover. Referring to the Woodwards, Huntington wrote in an e-mail to Mehrbach that he intended to “just lay it on the line with [them]. (Maybe they can get me fired?) Beat Terry and Liza to the punch.” Huntington would later apologize to the Woodwards, according to court proceedings, as would three other Sidwell officials.
Huntington, Newmyer’s lawyer contends, had little respect for his profession. In an e-mail dated March 10, 2010, Huntington wrote to Mehrbach, “Drugs, alcohol, shamans, chakras, faith healers, voodoo doctor, and people that work with crystals and Ouija boards, are usually a better, and my recommend first choice, route to go for help. Shrinks are a last resort in my book.”
Newmyer says he contacted Sidwell and registered his concern that the school psychologist was having an affair with his wife at the same time he was treating his daughter.
Despite many entreaties that included appeals from Newmyer’s family members to Sidwell officials, little changed. On February 11, 2011, Newmyer sent copies of a detailed memorandum on the matter to Sidwell’s board, along with some e-mails between Huntington and Mehrbach.
On February 16, 2011, Sidwell fired Huntington.
Three months later, Terry Newmyer filed suit against Sidwell and Huntington.
In the two years since Newmyer filed the case, the two sides have traded motions, interviewed witnesses, and completed the discovery process. One of the most recent contentious exchanges revolved around the Woodward subpoena.
Walsh received a subpoena for the correspondence nearly a year ago—April 2, 2012—but she and Woodward have refused to comply. They have argued that the correspondence is private, privileged, and irrelevant to the case.
In a motion filed January 28, Newmyer’s lawyers argued that Walsh and Woodward’s communication was vital to their case. “During the course of discovery,” they wrote, “evidence was produced that Dr. Huntington not only mishandled another situation involving a Sidwell student but that he then breached that child’s confidences by disclosing private information about her and her family, the Woodwards, to Tara Mehrbach, with whom he was having a sexual affair at the time. It has also been shown that Dr. Huntington’s breach of those confidences contributed to Sidwell’s termination of his employment.”
Newmyer’s lawyers point to that breach of privilege as crucial to their case against the school. They contend that administrators allowed Huntington to remain in his job even after they learned how he had mishandled his counseling duties.
Newmyer’s motion asked Judge Rankin to compel Walsh to turn over all correspondence—e-mails, texts, faxes, voicemail messages, letters, et cetera—about Newmyer, Mehrbach, Huntington, Huntington’s treatment of their daughter, and Sidwell’s psychological services in general.
Robert Liotta is handling the subpoena dispute for the Woodwards. He and Newmyer’s lawyer, Kerry Scanlon, both declined to comment for this article.
According to a letter from Liotta, contained in court records, Walsh lodged an objection with Newmyer’s attorney when she received the subpoena:
“Ms. Walsh told Mr. Scanlon that the allegations in the suit were incorrect and that she had made the same assertion to Mr. Newmyer when the lawsuit was filed. She further told Mr. Scanlon that she objected to the subpoena and wanted it withdrawn. Mr. Scanlon told Ms. Walsh that he needed to talk to his client and would get back to her about how to proceed. She heard nothing thereafter.
“At about the same time, Mr. Woodward called Mr. Newmyer to protest the subpoena. Mr. Newmyer indicated that the subpoena would be dropped. Ms. Walsh relied on those conversations and did not comply.”
Judge Rankin ruled against Woodward and Walsh and has ordered them to turn over some e-mails. He narrowed the subpoena to include only written communications between the Woodwards and Sidwell that cast Huntington in a bad light.
Liotta asked Rankin to seal parts of the record concerning the dispute over Woodward’s subpoena. The record was sealed last month.
Barring a settlement—or Newmyer’s decision to drop his case—the public trial will proceed.
But why? Newmyer has already divorced Mehrbach. He doesn’t need the $10 million in damages. He is living in Palm Beach with his two daughters from the Mehrbach marriage. A Florida court gave him primary custody with sole control over decisions regarding their education.
Newmyer has declined interviews, but people close to him say he’s seeking a full apology from Sidwell, which he believes is necessary for his child’s welfare. He also asks that Huntington have no contact with his daughter for seven years.
Neither Sidwell nor its lawyers would comment on why the school has declined to settle the case. But word that Walsh and Woodward were forced to turn over correspondence they considered private might add to pressure that Sidwell forgo the trial in open court, which could provide weeks of salacious news.
The case, also, is a window into the small circle of relationships at the pinnacle of Washington society. For one thing, it’s the second time in a year that the Himmelman family has caused Woodward heartburn. Liza Himmelman Huntington is the sister of Jeff Himmelman, the onetime Woodward book researcher whose semi-authorized biography last year of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee raised questions about Woodward’s Watergate reporting. In his biography, Himmelman quotes from a 1990 interview in which Bradlee said he feared Woodward had embellished some of the reporting on Watergate: “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.” Woodward strongly objected to having his reporting questioned and called Himmelman “dishonest.” Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, both issued strong statements of support for Woodward, with Bradlee saying, “I always trusted him, and I always will.”
For his part, Judge Rankin was the fourth judge assigned to the case. The first three all had to recuse themselves because of ties to Sidwell.
The first judge assigned in May 2011, J. Ramsey Johnson, had a son set to graduate from Sidwell that spring, and both he and his wife have donated to the school; the case then went to Craig Iscoe, who also quickly recused himself—his son had graduated from Sidwell in 2006. The case then fell to Gregory E. Jackson, who had graduated from Sidwell in 1969. Only after Jackson recused himself did Rankin—who grew up in Mississippi and whose children don’t attend Sidwell—finally hear the case.
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