Judge to Plead Guilty in Conflict of Interest Case

Willis W. Berry Jr.

A Philadelphia judge charged for using his judicial office to run a private business will plead guilty, according to his defense attorney.

Defense attorney Sam Stretton told the Tribune his client, Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. will plead guilty in connection with charges of conflict of interest and theft of services. Berry, 72, allegedly ran his private real estate business out of his judicial offices and used his secretary to handle calls and accept rent payments. Berry owned at least 16 properties, including a multi-unit rental. Whether or not Berry will retain his pension will be determined on Dec. 4 when he pleads guilty. Any other details of his plea will also become known on that date and the state attorney general’s office declined to comment until then.

But Stretton said the charges aren’t new and questions the reason for them.

“None of this is new so why, after five years, are they doing this?” Stretton asked. “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 against the retired judge dates back to May 21. It states Berry directed his judicial secretary to assist him in the daily operations of his rental property business, when she should have been performing duties official to the judicial office. The document shows that during his tenure as a judge, Berry owned and managed up to 16 different properties, including several multi-unit rental properties. The total value for allegedly diverting his secretary’s salary for Berry’s personal gain is estimated to be at least $110,880 over the 10-year period.

Berry’s legal problems began in April 2007 when the state judicial conduct board began an investigation concerning allegations that he was using his office to run the private business. On Dec. 17, 2007 the judicial conduct board filed a complaint and notified him of the investigation. In 2009 the board issued a report of its findings. The case was referred to the state attorney general in 2013, after which the A.G. conducted an investigation independent of the findings of the board and filed charges.

The investigation found that from 1997 through April 2007, Berry allegedly used his judicial office and taxpayer resources. Berry allegedly directed his secretary to perform a variety of duties during official time for his personal business, including maintaining records; managing with prospective and current residents by phone and in-person at the Criminal Justice Center; preparing and filing legal documents including leases and eviction complaints; appearing at landlord/tenant proceedings; marketing the properties; and doing other financial work, including paying bills and making bank deposits.

According to court documents, on Nov. 19, 2013, Berry’s secretary confirmed to investigators that he directed her to engage in “significant activity related to the running of his private business and unrelated to his elected office.” The secretary alleged that Berry directed her to maintain files at her work station on his tenants and contact prospective or current residents. She allegedly mailed correspondence, eviction notices, lease agreements, mailed utility payment checks, organized receipts related to his properties and engaged in other unofficial duties.

“During interviews with the Judicial Conduct Board in 2008, [the secretary] the real estate duties were considered part of her job,” according to court documents. Investigators said the secretary stated her annual salary was $44,000 before she was terminated. She was allegedly required to be at Landlord Tenant Court twice a month. The investigators concluded that at the secretary’s hourly rate of $21.00, Berry allegedly diverted at least $11,088 every year from the taxpayers over ten years. The total amount Berry allegedly personally gained would be at least $110,880 over ten years.

Contact staff writer

Larry Miller

at (215) 893-5782

or lmiller@phillytrib.com

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