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Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce, who faces a retention election this year, is the subject of an investigation by the FBI and Internal Revenue Service into insurance payments he received after an automobile crash in 2001, an Erie newspaper has reported. A friend of Joyce, auto body shop owner Daniel Strong, told the Erie Times-News he testified before a federal grand jury about physical activities in which Joyce partook in the years following the August 2001 crash that brought the judge a $440,000 insurance settlement. The grand jury questioned Joyce’s ability to fly a plane, scuba dive and ride a motorcycle after the crash, according to The Associated Press. Strong testified Joyce’s ability to ride his motorcycle or scuba dive for extended periods has been restricted since the crash, the AP reported. In the accident, a Ford Explorer rear-ended Joyce’s state-leased Mercedes-Benz at a traffic light in Erie, according to the newspaper. Joyce’s attorney, David Ridge of Ridge & McLaughlin in Erie, confirmed the judge is aware of the federal investigation but would not say whether Joyce has received a target letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “He feels that it is important and appropriate that he cooperate, and he is doing so. He is confident that the federal investigation will conclude that he did nothing wrong with regard to obtaining his insurance settlement,” Ridge said. Judicial ethics experts said the investigation itself has no impact on Joyce’s role as an appellate judge. “Unless there are any charges filed and charges proven � there wouldn’t be any immediate ethical or judicial conduct considerations,” said James C. Schwartzman, of Schwartzman & Associates, whose practice primarily involves legal ethics and disciplinary matters. While there is no clear indication either from the newspaper report or sources as to what the subject of the investigation is, some have speculated that it could center on insurance fraud. For example, white collar criminal defense attorney Ellen C. Brotman, of Montgomery McCracken in Philadelphia, said the questions Strong answered regarding Joyce’s activities appear to fit a “classic investigative technique” to establish an individual was not injured as severely as he or she claims. However, given the facts of the case reported by the newspaper, the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be hard pressed to prove that Joyce had fraudulently obtained the settlement, Brotman said. “The fact that a grand jury is investigating, doesn’t lead me to believe the judge has done anything wrong,” Brotman said. “Grand juries investigate and sometimes they find there has been no malfeasance.” Brotman added that the IRS is likely involved in the investigation because insurance settlements obtained as the proceeds of a criminal scheme are taxable and an individual who fails to report such proceeds could be charged with evasion or filing a false return. The Times-News reported Joyce underwent surgery in 1992 for injuries to his back he suffered in a car crash then. Brotman said people with pre-existing conditions often suffer more as a result of what might be a minor car accident for anyone else. The newspaper reported that Joyce’s friend said the judge continued his activities including motorcycling and scuba diving but that he can’t ride or dive as long as he could before the 2001 crash and must wear a brace. “They have pain,” Brotman said of people injured in car crashes and other mishaps. “They have a choice of giving in to their pain, or trying to enjoy life through their pain.” Samuel C. Stretton, of West Chester, Pa., described Joyce as a good judge with a reputation for handing down tough sentences at the common pleas court level, where he served for 12 years before his election to the Superior Court in 1997. “When he first came to the bench, we were all a little worried because of his reputation as Maximum Mike,” said Stretton, who has argued before Joyce at the appellate level. “I have found him to have really evolved into a very sensitive judge who is attuned to the issues before him.” A finding of guilt on insurance-related charges � if they were filed against Joyce � would almost certainly result in disciplinary action, Stretton said. “If it was false or fraudulent doings, it would be federal wire or mail fraud and could have a serious impact on his ability to sit on the bench,” Stretton said. Stretton questioned the motivations of the individual who revealed the investigation. “Perhaps that witness has his own problems and is trying to make hay,” Stretton said. Schwartzman said it’s not too farfetched to suspect the witness who revealed the investigation had political motives. “What happens if nothing ever comes of this, and it has an adverse effect when you tell me he’s running for retention. It’s a pretty devastating effect,” Schwartzman said. Patrick Deck, Joyce’s retention campaign spokesman, said he is confident there will be no findings of wrongdoing at the conclusion of the investigation and that Joyce plans to continue with his retention bid. Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said court officials learned of the investigation recently but had no other comment. Joyce’s office referred inquiries to Ridge.

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