Judge faces charges over real-estate work

Posted: January 06, 2009

Pennsylvania's Judicial Conduct Board yesterday charged Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry with bringing "disrepute" to the court system by running his personal real-estate business using taxpayer-funded court staff working on court time.

The charges - which could result in Berry's removal from the Philadelphia bench if affirmed at trial by the state's Court of Judicial Discipline - were made in an eight-page complaint filed by Daniel T. Reimer, the board's assistant counsel.

Berry, 66, who was elected to the court in 1995 and won retention to a 10-year-term in 2005, could not be reached yesterday.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED JANUARY 7, 2009, FOLLOWS: An article in yesterday's Inquirer about ethics charges filed against Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry incorrectly reported the length of the suspension of another Philadelphia judge. Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon was suspended without pay for three months by the state Court of Judicial Discipline.

Berry's attorney, Samuel Stretton, said he had not had a chance to read the complaint against Berry.

"I suspect that we will admit to most of the factual findings and go to hearing on whether the rules were violated," Stretton said.

Stretton said Berry had stopped using court staff to manage his real-estate holdings.

Complaints about Berry's use of his chambers and secretary to operate a real-estate business with an inventory heavy in dilapidated below-code properties first surfaced in 2007 when Berry was running an unsuccessful campaign for a state Supreme Court seat.

In a series of articles, The Inquirer outlined how Berry used his official court address and phone at the Criminal Justice Center to advertise apartment vacancies.

The articles also detailed how Berry's then-secretary, Carolyn Fleming, helped collect rent in the office and handled correspondence with tenants. The newspaper also reported that Berry's judicial aide, Henry Reddy, doubled as a maintenance man at Berry's apartment buildings.

Fleming subsequently cooperated with investigators on the Berry case.

The Judicial Conduct Board's complaint goes further, charging that Berry's use of his judicial offices for his personal business began as soon as he took office in January 1995.

"After becoming a judge in 1995," the complaint reads, "[Berry] continued to own these properties and purchased additional ones, owning at one point a total of 16 different vacant or occupied properties," including several multi-unit apartment buildings.

The complaint alleges that many of Berry's properties were in "poor condition and non-compliant with various safety, building and licensing codes when initially purchased" and were later cited again by city inspectors.

From January 1995 to August 2007, the complaint continues, Berry "was issued in excess of 70 citations by the City of Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections for various violations of safety, building and licensing codes."

During this time, the complaint alleges, Fleming handled the day-to-day needs of the judge's business. She maintained tenant lease files, payment records and correspondence on her court computer, met with prospective and current tenants in the judge's chambers or elsewhere in the courthouse, represented the judge at landlord-tenant disputes, and visited L&I and other city agencies to try to resolve code problems and other issues involving Berry's properties.

All of these activities occurred in chambers between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and with Berry's "full knowledge and complicity."

Stretton was reached late yesterday in Harrisburg during a break in a penalty hearing by the Court of Judicial Discipline involving another city judge - Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon. The court yesterday suspended DeLeon for nine months and put him on probation until 2012.

Last month, the court ruled that DeLeon violated judicial conduct rules in 2005 when he issued a stay-away order without a hearing as a favor to the Romanian consul in Philadelphia. The consul had complained at a party about a bothersome neighbor.

In addition to Berry and DeLeon, two other city judges have come under the Judicial Conduct Board's scrutiny.

Stretton, who specializes in representing lawyers and judges facing ethical and conduct allegations, has confirmed that the board is investigating charges that for the last 10 years, Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford A. Means failed to report rental income from his rooming houses on financial disclosure forms.

Today, the Court of Judicial Discipline is expected to conduct a penalty hearing for Traffic Court Judge Willie F. Singletary, charged in April with passing the hat in 2007 while running for office. Singletary was videotaped at a meeting of motorcycle enthusiasts seeking campaign contributions and promising favorable consideration after he was elected.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

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