The state Supreme Court has suspended a Philadelphia judge charged on allegations that he violated both the state constitution and judicial codes of conduct because he did not disclose all of the details of the cases in which he was a defendant to a bar association committee reviewing his candidacy for recommendation to the voters.
One of those cases was the judge’s bankruptcy in which objectors argued the judge participated in an allegedly fraudulent scheme to sell a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
The high court said it was taking the action because Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas M. Nocella is facing formal charges in front of the Court of Judicial Discipline.
“In view of the compelling and immediate need to protect and preserve the integrity of the Unified Judicial System and the administration of justice for citizens of this commonwealth, Judge Thomas M. Nocella is hereby relieved of any and all judicial and administrative responsibilities as a common pleas court judge and ordered not to take any further administrative or judicial action whatsoever in any case or proceeding now or hereinafter pending in the First Judicial District until further order of this court,” the court said in a per curiam order.
Nocella has been most recently assigned to the juvenile branch of the family division.
Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is suspended because she is facing allegations that she used her public office resources for campaigning, did not participate in the matter.
The court did not order Nocella be suspended without pay or benefits.
Nocella’s attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said that he did not think Nocella would have much success in challenging his interim suspension considering the Supreme Court rejected a similar challenge by another of Stretton’s clients, former Magisterial District Judge Maryesther S. Merlo, to such an interim suspension. “I don’t think they have the authority but who am I to say?” Stretton said of the Supreme Court. Stretton is a columnist for The Legal.
Nocella also was charged by the Judicial Conduct Board with failing to “respect and comply with the law” by failing to file campaign finance reports required for a political action committee for which the judge provided legal services on a pro bono basis. The judge also allegedly failed to obey a court order to pay a $39,000 fine out of the PAC funds for the campaign finance violations.
Nocella, who was elected to the bench in the fall of 2011, also served as an interim appointee on the Municipal Court from December 2, 2008, until January 3, 2010.
The constitution bars judges from engaging “in any activity prohibited by law and shall not violate any canon of legal or judicial ethics prescribed by the Supreme Court,” court papers said.
Nocella was reviewed by the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2011. In 2011, Nocella was nominated by the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee to fill a judicial vacancy that had arisen between the spring primary and the general election in the fall.
While Nocella was preliminarily given a “not recommended” rating by the bar commission in 2005 and 2009, Nocella appeared before the commission and persuaded its members to issue a rating of “recommended,” the board said.
The board said that Nocella, when seeking an updated evaluation by the bar commission in 2011, did not disclose that he had filed for bankruptcy; that he had been found in contempt of two court orders sought by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics in the campaign finance case; that the Internal Revenue Service had filed liens against him for $358,961 and $110,748; that a judgment was entered against Nocella for $923,152 in favor of Czarnecki Profit Sharing; and that a judgment of $306,174 was entered against Nocella in favor of Casimir Czarnecki.
The bar association panel did rate Nocella as “recommended” in 2011.
The board said that, while Nocella disclosed the case involving the VFW in 2009, that Nocella “failed to disclose material facts in his description of the VFW matter, including the facts that he misrepresented his authority to execute documents and collected a $60,000 fee at the property closing.”
Straughter-Carter Post No. 6627, Veterans of the Foreign Wars and Veterans of Foreign Wars of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Department said in their complaint objecting to the dischargeability of Nocella’s debt that Nocella participated in the fraudulent transfer of the VFW post’s real property at 4338-44 Terrace St., Philadelphia, “in stating that he was the representative of Straughter-Carter, despite his subsequent testimony that he has never been a representative of Straughter-Carter or any VFW post.”
Wells Fargo said in its complaint objecting to the dischargeability of Nocella’s debt that “Nocella participated in a fraudulent scheme with Post Commander Charles Covington to sell the real property of Straughter-Carter Post No. 6627, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States” to Monastery Hill Partners for $507,500.
The post said in its complaint that the post’s charter had been revoked and its property had become the property of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Department.
Wells Fargo claimed that Nocella held himself out as the secretary of the post at the closing of the sale of the post’s real property and signed “a unanimous consent” swearing that he was the secretary of the post, even though he was none of those things, according to the bank’s filing.
Nocella settled the case with the VFW for $80,000 on April 12, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled July 15 that the debt owed by Nocella was not dischargeable, the board said.
In the campaign finance case, Nocella, then serving as a Philadelphia Municipal Court interim appointee, was held in contempt in 2009 of two court orders regarding a political action committee campaign finance filing report violation and a $39,000 fine for the violation. The contempt of court was sought by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics.
Nocella and one other person settled the matter with the Board of Ethics for $16,000 in the fall of 2009, the board said.