State judicial board files charges against Philadelphia judge

Judge Thomas M. Nocella . His lawyer predicted the case would be resolved "in a reasonable fashion" and hoped he would keep his job.
Judge Thomas M. Nocella . His lawyer predicted the case would be resolved "in a reasonable fashion" and hoped he would keep his job.
Posted: October 25, 2012

The state Judicial Conduct Board filed disciplinary charges Tuesday against a controversial Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge with close ties to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

The board charged in the Court of Judicial Discipline that Judge Thomas M. Nocella violated judicial canons and the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Specifically, the board charged that Nocella misrepresented his legal qualifications in 2009 and 2011, failing to report numerous lawsuits and other legal problems he faced to the Philadelphia Bar Association.

The bar association was interviewing him at the time to determine whether the association should recommend him for election.

Based on the information that Nocella provided, the bar association recommended him - a key boost to a judicial candidates' campaign.

Nocella's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, predicted that the case would be resolved "in a reasonable fashion" and said he was hopeful that Nocella would not be removed from the bench.

Stretton said he did not believe the charges would affect Nocella's current role within the court system. Nocella is assigned to Family Court at 1801 Vine St., handling dependency and juvenile cases.

"This has nothing to do with anything he did on the bench," Stretton said. "I've heard nothing but rave reviews for his performance as a judge. Everybody thinks he's extremely professional."

Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said the Judicial Conduct Board's action was similar to a prosecutor's bringing charges against a defendant. Marks said that based on the charges, it was disconcerting that Nocella was hearing cases.

"It would be hard for a litigant to have confidence in a ruling by him, knowing that he lied his way to become a judge in the first place," Marks said.

She said Nocella, who draws a $165,000 judicial salary, "showed a brazen disrespect" for the judicial selection process.

Robert A. Graci, chief counsel for the Judicial Conduct Board, said he knew of no action to replace Nocella while the charges are pending.

Several months

Graci said it would be several months before Nocella had a trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline.

If the court sustains the charges against Nocella, there will then be a separate penalty hearing before the court.

Nocella lost primaries for Municipal Court judge in 2001 and 2005 before former Gov. Ed Rendell appointed him to the Municipal Court bench in 2008. He lost another primary in 2009 and finished his term in 2010.

Nocella, who has credited Brady with getting him elected, did not run in the 2011 primary for Common Pleas Court, but instead was nominated by Democratic ward leaders in the fall and won the general election.

Shortly after Nocella's election last November, The Inquirer reported that there was a $358,000 IRS lien against him and that the state revenue department said he ignored local taxes for years. He also had more than $1 million in debts listed in a bankruptcy case he was facing.

The Judicial Conduct Board said Nocella interviewed with the bar association in October 2011 but failed to disclose many of those financial problems.

"The omission of material facts resulted a misrepresentation of his credentials," it said.

The Inquirer had also reported that Nocella was also embroiled in a Common Pleas Court lawsuit accusing him of fraud and deceit in 2005, when he helped sell off property for $507,500 that was owned by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Manayunk. The property, overlooking the Schuylkill and large enough to hold 10 townhouses, is up the hill from Manayunk's main shopping area.

In a sworn deposition in the case, Nocella admitted that he made $60,000 as a consequence of signing a title-company document stating he was the secretary of Straughter-Carter Post 6627 - although he acknowledged that he was never a VFW member and was not authorized to act as secretary.

He said that without his signature, the deal would not have gone through.

Stretton said in November that Nocella's role in the property sale "was one of the stupider things he did."

The Judicial Conduct Board said that Nocella "failed to disclose material facts in his description of the VFW matter, including the fact that he misrepresented his authority to execute the documents and collected a $60,000 fee at the property closing."

Nocella also had troubles with the city's Board of Ethics stemming from his work on a political action committee started by the late Carol Ann Campbell, Brady's former Democratic City Committee lieutenant.

Siphoned?

The fund failed to file the required disclosures after it donated $15,000 to Brady's 2007 mayoral campaign and $10,000 to Campbell's City Council campaign.

The Ethics Board said that when it tried to collect fines, Nocella and the other fund official, Ernesto DeNofa, siphoned off most of its money, using much of it to pay Brady's mayoral campaign bills.

Nocella also took $2,500 for what previously was pro bono work, according to the commission's November 2009 settlement agreement with the two men.

Nocella and DeNofa signed the agreement with the Ethics Board, and they split the $16,440 fine. The Judicial Conduct Board, in its complaint with the Court of Judicial Discipline, labeled his actions in that case as a "failure to respect and comply with the law."

The board, in its filing with the court, called Nocella's actions "so extreme" that they violated the state constitution's prohibition against conduct that brings disrepute on the court.

Reached Tuesday night, Brady acknowledged his past support for Nocella.

"He should have reported that, I guess," he said when informed of the charges. "We'll see what happens."


Contact Mark Fazlollah

at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Bob Warner contributed to this article.

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