Judge will go on trial for running his business out of the courthouse

Sam Newhouse

Former Philadelphia judge Willis Berry, 72, is scheduled to go to trial before a jury in April on charges of abusing his office — months after reports surfaced that he was about to plead guilty.

“There were pre-negotiations at one point, but those are now at a standstill,” W. Fred Harrison, a lawyer for the 72-year-old former Court of Common Pleas judge said after a pretrial conference Thursday.

“He doesn’t acknowledge anything at this point. … He’s going to be pleading not guilty,” he said.

Berry faces felony charges of restricted activities and theft of services for allegedly operating his landlord business out of his judicial offices in the courthouse, including using his secretary’s services, while taxpayers footed the bill.

The Inquirer previously reported that plea negotiations broke down when Berry learned that a guilty plea would mean he’d lose the $6,000-a-month pension he’s been receiving since he retired in 2012.

“Right now, that’s one of the sticking points,” Harrison said of the pension issue.

Berry, a Penn State and Temple Law grad, was charged by the office of Attorney General Kathleen Kane in May 2014.

He allegedly owned 16 properties, “including several multi-unit rental properties,” and managed them from his chambers from 1997 to 2007, according to a press release from the attorney general’s office.

The charge is that Berry used court staff to run his private business. According to the charges, he had his secretary “assist him in the day-to-day operations of his rental properties,” prosecutors said. The secretary told investigators she thought that was part of her job.

Prosecutors’ accounts of what Berry had his staff do read like a help-wanted ad for a real estate agency. Berry’s court staff kept his business records, had tenants visiting the courthouse for meetings, prepared leases and eviction proceedings, worked on marketing his properties, paid bills and handled his bank accounts.

“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,” said a press release from Kane’s office announcing the charges against Berry.

The state Judicial Conduct Board filed a complaint against Berry in December 2007. It was referred to the Attorney General’s office in July 2013.

“It’s up to the judge and the jury to decide,” Berry said outside court after his hearing. “I’m not guilty.”

A Montgomery County judge is hearing the charges against Berry.

The delay in indicting Berry has perplexed observers. Former Philadelphia D.A. Lynne Abraham reportedly said she could not charge Berry at the time his alleged misconduct was revealed.

Berry’s trial is currently scheduled for April 13.

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