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Judge's public office, staff used for personal business

A court-paid worker was on the case, collecting rent and signing leases for Berry. He says that will stop.

For years, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Willis W. Berry Jr. has been using his judicial office and staff to help run his real estate business, according to interviews and copies of the judge's correspondence.

A leading expert on legal ethics - who happens to be an adviser to Berry's campaign for state Supreme Court - says that's wrong.

"Oh, boy," lawyer Samuel C. Stretton said when told of Berry's practices. "You can't do that.

"You can't use your judicial staff to do your personal business. It could reflect on the institution. I'll put a stop to that."

Berry said he would change his ways if Stretton thought he should.

"It's convenient for me, but I'll stop doing it," Berry said in an interview Friday. "It's no problem to do that. Still, I don't see anything wrong with it, but if he feels it's inappropriate, I'll stop. I trust him."

According to records and interviews, Berry has been using his court staff to collect rent, make repairs, and process leases and other paperwork.

Signs advertising apartment vacancies at three of Berry's buildings list the phone number of the judge's chambers on the 14th floor of the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street near City Hall.

His secretary, Carolyn Fleming, helped collect the rent in the office and handled correspondence with tenants. And his judicial aide, Henry Reddy, doubled as a maintenance man at the apartment buildings, fixing appliances and repairing plumbing, former tenants say.

Berry listed the office's phone number and address on letters he sent to tenants, court records show. Fleming sometimes signed those letters on his behalf, the records show. In one case, she signed a lease for the judge.

A letter the judge sent to one tenant, complaining about overdue rent, said: "I had Carol call you regarding the balance on numerous occasions which you informed her that you would come down with the balance and May's rent. To date, we have nothing."

Berry acknowledged his secretary's help, and he confirmed tenants' accounts that they paid their monthly rent at his office at the courthouse.

"We tell them to send it to [a building he owns on] Girard Avenue, but they come down to the office," he said.

Berry said he had only occasionally called on Reddy for help with the apartments after hours because he lives nearby. "Henry hasn't worked on any of those properties since I got on the bench," he said.

Reddy and Fleming did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Experts in judicial ethics said judges are not supposed to use their court offices to serve their private business interests.

"You can't have the resources provided to you by the government - be it employees or material – to conduct a private business," said Common Pleas Court Judge Howland W. Abramson, former chairman of the ethics committee of the state Conference of Trial Judges.

Abramson agreed to comment only in general, and would not address any specific case.

He noted that the state Supreme Court had censured Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Arthur S. Kafrissen in 1987 for his use of judicial staff, telephones and stationery to help run several abortion clinics.

"What you described to me seems similar to that," Abramson said.

Another expert said Pennsylvania's code of judicial conduct doesn't clearly spell out that a judge can't mix the court's business with his own.

"It's not slam-dunk egregious," said William Arbuckle, former chief counsel to the state Board of Judicial Conduct.

"If he had called me up and asked me if he should do it, I would tell him no, because you want to insulate yourself from impropriety. But it's not clearly prohibited."

Tenants said Fleming would accept rent payments by certified check, cash or money order. Sometimes, she would go to the apartments to pick up the rent, said Pamela Gibson, who was a tenant of Berry's for seven years.

"Carol was real nice," Gibson said.

Orlando Caquias, another former tenant, said he would take his rent to the courthouse, where Fleming would give him a receipt.

"I used to meet with her in the lobby or the office, and she would give me paperwork," he said. "She would take care of all his business from the office."