Former Phila. Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. arrested on corruption charges

Former Judge Willis W. Berry
Former Judge Willis W. Berry
Posted: May 24, 2014

Willis W. Berry Jr.'s decision to run his real estate business out of his judicial office got him suspended from his Philadelphia judgeship in 2009, and in April, a real estate deal cost him his license to practice law.

Now, those dealings could put him behind bars.

On Thursday, state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane announced that her office had charged Berry with theft and conflict of interest for running the business from his judicial chambers for more than a decade.

Berry, 71, surrendered to Philadelphia police Thursday morning and spent several hours behind bars before being released on his own recognizance by Magistrate Francis J. Rebstock. Rebstock, who addressed Berry as "judge" during a brief arraignment, set a preliminary hearing for May 27.

As The Inquirer reported in 2007, Berry, then a Common Pleas Court judge, moonlighted as a landlord, renting a string of derelict properties in North Philadelphia and managing them out of his office at the courthouse.

Berry had his judicial secretary, Carol Fleming, collect rent, place ads for the apartments, handle maintenance complaints, and attend hearings in landlord-tenant court - all on the taxpayers' dime.

According to a criminal complaint filed by Kane's office, Berry bilked Philadelphia taxpayers out of $110,000 by using Fleming to run his business during the work day. She was Berry's primary contact for tenants at his 16 rental properties - some rundown, vermin infested, and beset with code violations.

The judge listed his official court address and office telephone in advertisements of apartment vacancies.

He used court computers, telephones, and fax machines for his business and had his tipstaff, Henry Reddy, moonlight as handyman at the properties.

All of this led to Berry's suspension from the bench without pay for four months in 2009. The state's Court of Judicial Discipline called the judge's conduct "flat-out wrong," and judicial investigators said his actions amounted to the crime of a "theft of services."

That led to criminal investigations - but no charges - by the state Attorney General's office and former District Attorney Lynne Abraham.

What changed to cause the filing of Thursday's charges is unclear. According to court documents, Kane's office initiated a new investigation last year after a citizen complaint was forwarded to prosecutors by State Rep. Garth Everett, a Lycoming County Republican.

Last November, according to the affidavit of probable cause, state investigators interviewed Fleming, who corroborated her testimony before the Judicial Conduct Board and said she spent about 528 hours a year on Berry's real estate business.

Based on an hourly rate calculated on Fleming's $44,000-a-year salary as judicial secretary, investigators estimated that $110,880 in taxpayers money was spent on Berry's private business over a decade.

Berry's longtime lawyer, Samuel C. Stretton, angrily denounced Kane's decision to bring charges, saying Berry had already been punished by a state judicial oversight panel.

"I have no idea why bring these charges now," Stretton said. "It makes no sense. It's outrageous."

Stretton said he may challenge the charges as being outside the statute of limitations for prosecution.

Berry, first elected judge in 1995, retired in September 2012 on the same day he was to ordered to pay a $180,000 civil fraud judgment involving a property that a jury found he acquired by deceiving a client.

Last month, the state Supreme Court suspended Berry's license to practice law for a year and one day over that incident.

The suspension means that his law license will not automatically renew. He will have to reapply.

Since his retirement two years ago, Berry has not practiced law but has focused on rehabilitating properties near his North Philadelphia office.

The dispute that resulted in the civil fraud verdict dates to 1993, two years before Berry became a judge, when he was a lawyer investing in real estate.

According to court documents, Berry had long tried to buy a vacant lot at 1533 W. Girard Ave., next to his law office.

His opportunity came when a woman named Denise Cleveland slipped and fell, hurting her back as she walked in front of the lot.

Cleveland sued the lot's owners, using Berry as her lawyer. According to court testimony, Berry later told Cleveland he had gotten her a $1,500 settlement and handed her a sheaf of papers to sign.

Cleveland said she signed them without reading them. She did not learn that she had been cheated out of thousands until 2007, when an Inquirer reporter showed her deeds and other documents listing her, briefly, as the lot's owner and later, its seller - to Berry, for $1,500.

Cleveland, then married and known as Denise Jackson, sued Berry for fraud in Common Pleas Court.

In 2009, her suit went to trial and a Philadelphia jury awarded her $180,000 in punitive damages and $9,859 in compensatory damages.

215-854-2985 @joeslobo


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