Judge, contractor to pay Ethics fines

Posted: November 19, 2009

A Municipal Court judge, Thomas M. Nocella, and a politically active contractor, Ernesto DeNofa, will each pay $8,220 in fines to settle a long-running dispute with the city's Board of Ethics.

The battle began in 2007 as a test of the Ethics Board's authority to force political-action committees to file computerized reports on their contributions and expenditures.

It evolved into a stubborn test of wills between two schools of politics - reformers at the Board of Ethics, trying to implement the city's new campaign-finance laws, and old-style pols, accustomed to more lax enforcement of the laws regulating money in politics.

"I think what you saw here was two different worlds colliding," said Samuel C. Stretton, the attorney representing Nocella and DeNofa, who negotiated the settlement that was disclosed yesterday at the Ethics Board's monthly meeting.

"I think everyone's learned a good lesson, and I don't think you'll see something like this happening again," Stretton said.

DeNofa is the treasurer of a political-action committee known as the Appreciation Fund, started by the late City Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell. Nocella served as the PAC's lawyer until he became a judge last year, an appointee of Gov. Rendell.

In 2007, the PAC ignored a series of warnings and deadlines from the Ethics Board to file computerized reports on its finances. The board eventually levied $39,000 in fines - $1,500 a day for 26 days.

That was more than 150 times what the PAC could have been fined for late reports under state law - a maximum of $250.

But rather than raise that issue in court, the PAC tried to ignore the Ethics Board. After the fine was upheld by Common Pleas Judge Gary F. DiVito, the PAC depleted its bank account, picking up nearly $14,000 in leftover bills from the mayoral campaign of Democratic Party chairman Bob Brady and paying $2,500 to Nocella for previously volunteered legal services.

The Ethics Board's volunteer lawyer, Cheryl A. Krause, persevered, getting an order from DiVito that held Nocella and DeNofa personally responsible for the fine.

The settlement will send $16,440 to the city treasury.

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