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Judge wins election despite money and ethics troubles

Newly elected Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella credits U.S. Rep. Bob Brady - Philadelphia's Democratic Party boss - for intervening with ward leaders to put him on the ticket.

Newly elected Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella credits U.S. Rep. Bob Brady - Philadelphia's Democratic Party boss - for intervening with ward leaders to put him on the ticket.

"He is the one in control," said Nocella, 67, rated qualified for the bench by the Philadelphia Bar Association, despite having been sanctioned by the city Ethics Commission in 2009.

He pointed out that he had done years of free legal work for the party and said the judgeship was his reward. "That's the way it's done in Pennsylvania," he said.

On Jan. 2, he will begin drawing a $165,000 judicial salary. Nocella welcomes the new income because there is a $358,000 IRS lien against him, the state says he ignored local taxes for years, and he has more than $1 million in debts listed in a bankruptcy case.

He is also embroiled in a Common Pleas Court lawsuit accusing him of fraud and deceit in 2005, when he helped sell off property for $507,500 that was owned by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Manayunk. The property, overlooking the Schuylkill and large enough to hold 10 townhouses, is four blocks up the hill from Manayunk's main shopping area.

Testifying under oath in a deposition, Nocella admitted that he pocketed $60,000 as a consequence of signing a title-company document stating he was the secretary of Straughter-Carter Post 6627 - although he acknowledged that he was never a VFW member and was not authorized to act as secretary.

He called it an "accommodation" and said that without his signature, the deal would not have gone through.

His lawyer, Samuel C. Stretton, said that Nocella's role in the property sale "was one of the stupider things he did" and that he would probably have to cough up some money as restitution to the VFW.

"That was wrong, obviously," Stretton said.

Stretton said he did not expect his client to face criminal charges because Nocella signed the VFW paperwork in 2005, and the statue of limitation has passed.

Nor did he expect the state Judicial Disciplinary Board to get involved because of the age of the case - though he added, "I'm not saying they couldn't try."

Two companies involved in the VFW case have submitted a petition seeking the recusal of the entire Philadelphia Common Pleas Court bench because of a "potential for bias and prejudice" in favor of Nocella.

Brady did not respond to repeated calls seeking his explanation for how Nocella became a judge.

But Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said Nocella's election taints the court system.

"It sends a message that judges are above the law, and I think that's a very troubling message for people to hear," she said, "I am troubled by the message it sends, and I would think other judges would be troubled."

Marks said she did not have all the information the bar association reviewed before it gave Nocella its "recommended" rating.

Bar chancellor Rudolph Garcia said he could only acknowledge Nocella's rating but was prohibited from disclosing any questions the association asked - or did not ask - in its review.

But Nocella described what happened. Shortly before the election, he was interviewed by a bar association panel, which included judges, lawyers, and members from outside the legal profession.

No one on the panel asked him about the VFW lawsuit or about fines that he was forced to pay by the city Ethics Commission two years ago, he said.

Nocella said his troubles with the Ethics Commission stemmed from his work on an "appreciation fund," a political action committee started by the late Carol Ann Campbell, Brady's former Democratic City Committee lieutenant.

The fund donated $15,000 to Brady's mayoral campaign and $10,000 to Campbell's City Council campaign but failed to file a required campaign-disclosure statement in January 2007.

The commission said that when it tried to collect fines, Nocella and the other fund official - Ernesto DeNofa, Brady's former campaign treasurer - had drained off most of its money, using much of it to pay Brady's mayoral campaign bills. Nocella also took $2,500 for what previously was pro bono work, according to the commission's November 2009 settlement agreement with the two men.

Nocella and DeNofa signed the agreement with the Ethics Commission, and each paid half the $16,440 fine.

In the VFW case, a key exhibit is the authorization of sale of the Manayunk property, at 4338-44 Terrance St. It was supposedly made by "unanimous consent action of the directors" of the Straughter-Carter post.

The document was signed by Charles Covington, a former post commander who died in 2009.

But Covington was not an officer at the time of the sale, the lawsuit says, and he had no legal right to sell any VFW property.

Nocella signed the same document, wrongly attesting that he was the Straughter-Carter post's secretary.

"So you executed the document as secretary of the post?" asked VFW attorney Jonathan A. Cass.

"As an accommodation," Nocella answered.

"What do you mean by 'as an accommodation'?" Cass asked.

"The title company wanted somebody to sign that, and I signed it," Nocella answered.

"You weren't secretary, though?" Cass asked.

"No, I wasn't."

"And you weren't authorized as secretary," Cass said.

"No, I wasn't," Nocella acknowledged.

He said that had he not signed the document, the sale would not have occurred.

"You're a member of the bar. You're being asked to sign a document and to certify to something that you clearly are not," Cass said. "Why didn't you just get up and walk out?"

"Frankly, I didn't see the harm in doing it," Nocella told him. "I thought it was just a formality."

He said that if the transaction had not gone through, he would not have received the $60,000 payment.

In an interview Wednesday he blamed the lawsuit on Covington, who, the lawsuit said, pocketed most of the money from the sale.

"Unfortunately, clients put you in a bad position sometimes," he said.

Thanks to Brady, Nocella said, he got on the judicial ballot without having to run in the primary, a stumbling block in the past, as he had lost multiple times at that stage.

After three losses, then-Gov. Ed Rendell appointed him to fill a temporary Municipal Court vacancy.

Nocella served a year but had to face another primary in 2009 for a full term. He then suffered his fourth loss, despite spending $173,000 of his own on his campaign.

This year, Common Pleas Court Judge Howland Abramson decided at the last minute not to run for retention, creating a new opportunity for Nocella.

The primary had already passed, and the state ordered the city Democratic and Republican Parties to select replacement candidates.

Nocella said he approached Brady about the job. Nocella knew him well through his years of pro bono legal work for the Democrats.

He said that Brady called a meeting of ward leaders and that they agreed he should be the candidate.

"I asked the chairman. The chairman spoke to other ward leaders," Nocella said. "He was very helpful."

After ward leaders approved him, it was clear Nocella would win the election.

The Democrats put his name on the party's official sample ballots, which party committeemen handed out Tuesday at 1,500 polling sites.

Nocella said he spent nothing, "not a penny."

Still, he received more than 100,000 votes, as did every one of the other 10 endorsed Democratic candidates for Common Pleas Court openings, swamping the Republican contenders.

Once he begins drawing a salary, Nocella said, he expects to resolve his financial problems and get out of bankruptcy quickly.

He said the IRS wrongly calculated his debt, checking his taxes back to 1998. He said he expected to negotiate a settlement of "no more than $60,000."

"He's trying to straighten this mess out," said Stretton, his lawyer. "Whether he'll be successful or not, I don't know."