Jury convicts Philly judge who ran business out of chambers

Sam Newhouse

After hearing a former Philly judge defended as “an honorable man” who happened to use his court secretary for his real estate business, jurors sided with prosecutors and found him to be a crook who stole from taxpayers on Wednesday.

Former Court of Common Pleasjudge Willis Berry, 72, still a popular figure in Criminal Justice Center who is greeted warmly by much of the staff,was convicted of charges of conflict of interest and theft of services for allegedly operating his real estate business out of his judicial chambers from 1997 to 2007.

“Democracy itself is Judge Berry’s victim,” said deputy attorney general Daniel Dye, who prosecuted the case, which was heard by a Montgomery County judge, during closing arguments.

“Willis Berry was democratically elected to come in this courthouse and serve the people of Philadelphia. Behind closed doors, he was using a resource the people of Philadelphia gave him to manage his properties … to line his pockets.”

Berry, a Penn State and Temple Law grad, owned 16 properties, “including several multi-unit rental properties,” according to prosecutors.

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.

“Democracy itself is Judge Berry’s victim,” said Daniel Dye, a deputy attorney general who is prosecuting the case, which is being heard by a Montgomery County judge, during closing arguments. “Behind closed doors, he was usinga resource the people of Philadelphia gave him to manage his properties … to line his pockets. “
The jury disregarded defense arguments questioning the charges.

“If you were trying to steal, wouldn’t you try to do it surreptitiously?” asked Fred Harrison, defense attorney for Berry, noting that Berry conducted his business inside the courthouse.

“He’s a judge, an honorable man, with a decent salary … you think he needs to steal services? Does that make sense to you?”

According to prosecutors, the value fordiverting his secretary’s salary to his personal business is estimated to be at least $110,880 over 10 years.

Berry’s side business was reviewed by thestate Judicial Conduct Board after it was reported by the Inquirer in 2007.

The board filed a complaint against Berry in December 2007. It was referred to the state Attorney General’s office in July 2013 and charges were officially filed a year later.

Negotiations for Berry to plead guilty in this case broke down after he learned that he would have to forfeit his state pension of $6,010, which he has received since he retired in 2012.

Sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 6.

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