Sentenced in December to three years' probation for conflict of interest, former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. told the judge: "I'm just anxious to get this behind me."
Eight months later, the matter is very much in front of him.
Berry, 74, is continuing to fight on two fronts: overturning his conviction and regaining the $6,010-a-month state pension he forfeited last Dec. 30 for using his judicial office and staff to run his personal real estate business.
A veteran city criminal defense lawyer and neighborhood activist before he was elected a judge in 1996, Berry closed his law practice in 2012 when he retired as a judge. He said he would focus instead on his long-standing side business of buying and rehabilitating North Philadelphia properties.
When he left the bench, Berry withdrew his personal contributions to his state pension, a lump sum of $321,932, and began drawing his monthly benefit of $6,010.
But his age and a heart ailment diagnosed when he was sentenced have had an impact.
"He's doing all right, he's a tough guy," said Nino V. Tinari, one of Berry's defense lawyers in the criminal trial. "He was a little down for a while and he had some health issues."
Tinari said that he was focusing on Berry's appeal of his conviction to Superior Court, and that lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, who specializes in representing lawyers and judges who run afoul of the law and ethics rules, is fighting for Berry's pension.
Berry's illegal use of his judicial chamber and staff was first reported by the Inquirer in a series of articles in 2007. The articles described how Berry ran his real estate business from chambers and how he duped one woman out of her North Philadelphia property.
A Judicial Conduct Board probe followed, and the next year the board recommended a one-year suspension for "bringing the court into disrepute." In 2009, the state Court of Judicial Discipline suspended Berry for four months without pay; it could have removed him from the bench.
Berry had been retired for two years when, in May 2014, the state Attorney General's Office accused him of criminal conflict of interest and theft of services.
The factual basis for the criminal charges was the same thing for which Berry had been suspended, and Stretton complained that the criminal case was double jeopardy - violating the Constitution's bar against being tried twice for the same crime.
State prosecutors, however, argued that Berry was suspended in a civil proceeding, which did not bar them from criminally prosecuting him.
Berry's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get the charges dismissed, and in October 2014 confirmed that the former judge would plead guilty in a deal that included probation and $50,000 restitution.
Two months later, Berry had to reject what Stretton called "a good deal" after it became clear that pleading guilty would imperil his state pension, and the case went to trial in July 2015.
In early January, Berry received a letter dated Dec. 30 from the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System advising that he had forfeited his pension as of Dec. 11, his sentencing date.
According to the letter, obtained under the state Right-to-Know Law, SERS officials also demanded repayment of $4,007, the overage from the full monthly benefit Berry received Dec. 1.
Stretton challenged the pension forfeiture in a Jan. 26 letter to the SERS Appeals Committee, asking for a hearing before the full board. "The forfeiture of Willis Berry's 20-plus years of pension is extremely punitive and excessive," Stretton wrote, and violates Berry's due-process rights under the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions.
Stretton's appeal letter contends that the pension board knew of Berry's legal problems before his 2009 suspension and did nothing. Stretton argued that any forfeiture should be limited to $19,000 - the amount of lost taxpayer-funded services the jury determined Berry caused by running his personal business from chambers.
In an April 4 response to Stretton's appeal, SERS counsel Paul M. Stahlnecker reiterated the position of the Attorney General's Office when it lodged criminal charges against Berry.
"The 2009 Court of Judicial Discipline action and the 2015 criminal conviction are separate and distinct actions," Stahlnecker wrote. "SERS has no discretion in applying the [forfeiture] provisions of Act 140 when a member has been convicted of an Act 140 enumerated crime related to his public employment with the commonwealth."
If Berry's appeal of his criminal conviction succeeds, Stahlnecker added, his state pension would be restored and he would be entitled to receive all forfeited benefits with interest.