|Willis Berry Jr.|
Former Court of Common Pleas Judge Willis Berry Jr. goes to trial on April 13. He is charged with conflict of interest and theft of services. Last month Berry decided not to take a plea deal regarding the charges he faces. Berry was expected to formally accept the deal last month but defense attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said Berry would not accept the plea offer because it might affect his ability to collect a pension. Stretton said he felt the charges against his client are unfair.
“This was all resolved in 2009 with a four-month suspension,” Stretton said. “It should have been brought five years ago. None of this is new so why, after five years, are they doing this? I could see this happening back in 2009 but now it just seems to me to be vindictive. There’s no excuse for that. All of this is because he had a real estate business when he was an attorney and he ran that out of his office. When he became a judge he just continued. He was suspended by the board and retired after that. So I’m just baffled by this.”
The criminal complaint asserts Berry used taxpayer money to pay his judicial secretary for her assistance in managing 16 properties, including rental units Berry owned in Philadelphia. According to Stretton, the plea offer included $50,000 in restitution and two years of probation in exchange for pleading to two counts of second-degree misdemeanor theft.
In June 2009, according to court papers, the Court of Judicial Discipline found Berry brought the judicial system into disrepute and committed the crime of diversion of services. The CJD suspended him for four months without pay.
Stretton said he intends to file motions to strike some of the charges against Berry on the issues related to the separation of powers doctrine. The court will also now need to consider whether the trial should take place in Philadelphia, or if the Philadelphia bench will need to recuse, Stretton said.
An investigation conducted by the state attorney general in July 2013 revealed Berry engaged in the diversion of judicial resources to his business from 1997 to 2007, according to the complaint in the case. Berry diverted roughly $110,880 over the 10-year period to the payment of his secretary, Carolyn Fleming, the state alleged in the complaint.
Berry allegedly directed Fleming to maintain files, correspond with tenants by phone and in-person at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, prepare and file legal documents including leases and eviction complaints, appear at landlord-tenant proceedings, advertise properties in newspapers, engage in bookkeeping, pay bills and make bank deposits — all on official time, according to the complaint.
The investigation by Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office was prompted by a 2007 Judicial Conduct Board review of Berry’s use of Philadelphia County employees for non-judicial activities, the complaint said.
During JCB interviews, Fleming confirmed she would spend 10-12 hours a week on work related to Berry’s properties, the complaint said. Additionally, Fleming was required to be present at landlord-tenant court for four to six hours per month, according to the complaint.
The current pending prosecution is not the first time Berry has come under review for misconduct.
Aside from the four-month suspension by the CJD in 2009, the state Supreme Court suspended Berry in April from the practice of law for one year and a day for defrauding a former law client in the settlement of her personal injury claim before becoming a judge.
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Former judge to be tried for conflict of interest