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Sunday, September 2, 2007

More On: Corruption Targets Retired Judge Phillips (CLICK HERE FOR FULL STORY)

PART II on retired judge John L. Phillips.... the following story was submitted to us... it supplies additional background information regarding the treatment of Judge Phillips........


Exactly how corrupt and vindictive is the Brooklyn District Attorney's office? Just ask retired judge John Phillips, if you can find him.

ON JUNE 17, an oppressively hot day, a knot of protestors converged in the plaza near Brooklyn State Supreme Court. They were mostly black, mostly women, middle-aged or elderly, well-dressed and solemn. Underneath the quiet demeanor, however, they appeared to be seething. The homemade signs in their hands expressed their anger.

"Judge Phillips ran for District Attorney. Now he's homeless."
"Bring Judge Phillips home now!"
"What happened to Judge Phillips' multi-million dollar estate?"

The tragic figure in their complaint, retired judge John L. Phillips, Jr., had a date in the courthouse, so when he arrived, the protest broke up and the group followed him into the building and up to the 9th floor.

The 50-odd trial parts of the Brooklyn courthouse are identically depressing. The air is stale and the walls are of varnished wood paneling that looks phony. There is a faded, yellowed American flag, also phony-looking; a putty-hued linoleum floor; and at the back of the room sit four rows of chipped hardwood pews carved with a thousand names, curses, prayers and jags—a palimpsest of boredom and calamity into which Phillips and his entourage settled.

John Phillips had been returning to these halls since early 2001, the year he was planning to run for Brooklyn district attorney. That was also the year he was placed under a guardianship program overseen by a county judge, which wrested from Phillips' legal control an estimated $10 million in real estate holdings, including at least 10 buildings and two movie theaters. Now the 80-year-old was back in the same courtroom, battling to regain his estate.

How Phillips came to this impasse depends on whom you talk to. Phillips' guardians and the judge in the matter claimed he was "mentally incapacitated"; they say he had Alzheimer's and was a bit crazy. But when I met him for the first time that June morning, he appeared normal and fit, if a little slow in his step, a handsome old man in a brown suit, tall and gaunt, with silvering hair and huge gnarled hands like pieces of root.

"These sonsabitches are stealing my buildings," he said.

Enter the defendant, attorney Ray Jones, one of Phillips' guardians, whom Phillips accused of illegally selling off portions of his estate while pocketing the money. Unshaven and looking as if he'd just woken up, Jones wore white shoes with no socks and a cream-colored silk suit that hung loose, giving him the look of a b-movie thug on a Caribbean vacation. Jones was supposed to be accompanied by another lawyer, a man named Alan Drezin.

The judge in the case, the Hon. Michael Pesce, immediately noticed the absence. "Does counsel have any idea where Mr. Drezin might be?" Pesce asked Jones, who shrugged. "Does anyone know where Mr. Drezin is?" Pesce asked the room. The case, it was determined, could not move forward without Drezin, and so it was adjourned for a month—stalled, really, just as it had been for four years, and just as it would be again a month later.

As for Alan Drezin, he was pacing outside the courtroom, and greeted Ray Jones as they together departed.

"These people have been playing so many monkey games," said Emani P. Taylor, Phillips' lawyer at the time.

Indeed, there's good reason to believe the powers that be in Brooklyn want the Phillips case adjourned forever, fearing what it will uncover. Or adjourned, at least, until John L. Phillips dies of heartbreak in a poor house. At the age of 80, it's not an unreasonable expectation.

POLITICS IN BROOKLYN HAS been a machine-run patronage mill as long as anyone can remember. It operates to make money for the Brooklyn Democratic Party and the party's hacks, most of whom, like politicians generally, happen to be lawyers. Few people get elected outside the secret purview of this machine, and nowhere is this more true than in the judiciary, where cronyism has long been the rule. In the 1970s, $50,000 reportedly bought a seat on the bench. The money was expected in cash, delivered in shopping bags. Today it's said the going price is $100,000, funneled through printing contracts for your so-called "campaign." (There is no campaign because the party's picks are rarely opposed.)

So when John Phillips, at the age of 52, ran for office in a 1976 civil court race, it was with amazing fortune that he beat the machine.

The unlikely victory was in part due to Phillips' eccentricities. Born poor on a farm in Ohio, he served in the Army infantry during World War II but never saw combat. After the war, he worked his way through Akron Law School and traveled China and Japan studying the martial arts, eventually developing his own school of combat, something he calls the "Gorilla-Gnat System of Scientific Movements and Defensive Fighting." He taught the style for 15 years in a dojo on Nostrand Avenue.

Naturally, his campaign posters touted him as the "Kung-Fu Judge." On the bench he was known to sweep his robes out, assume the warrior stance and announce that "kung-fu law" was about to be practiced. He dressed well, wore a pencil moustache and bore a charming resemblance to Duke Ellington. He served on the bench with distinction: In 13 years, he was reversed only once in the appellates—a possible Brooklyn record. By his early 50s, he had become a successful landowner as well, with vast property holdings that he used to fund his rebel campaigns.

Still, in 1986 he lost reelection in a machine counterassault. Undaunted, he took back the seat in 1992, only to be forced into retirement by state law three years later, at age 70. In 1997 he attempted to run for the office of Brooklyn district attorney, the most powerful elective seat in the borough, and in doing so he would challenge the two-term incumbent Charles "Joe" Hynes, a tough white-haired Irishman and machine loyalist—but Phillips' nominating petitions were disqualified under New York's tortuous ballot access laws. He spent several years practicing law out of his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then as today the centrifuge of African-American politics and activism in Brooklyn. Among his properties was the Slave Theatre on Fulton Street, where he once hosted up-and-comers and radicals like Al Sharpton and Alton Maddox, and painted the walls with murals exhorting his public to "visit the homeland of the African slaves" and learn the "gorilla style" of fighting. Portraits of Bruce Lee and Toussaint L'Ouverture lined the walls above the popcorn stand.

By late 2000, it was understood that Phillips would again attempt to tackle Hynes. He had the backing, the money and the foot soldiers to make a serious run of it.

Then a strange thing happened. Prosecutors under Joe Hynes moved to declare Phillips "mentally incompetent."

MUCH OF THE LEGAL FILE in the John Phillips matter is sealed to the public (why it was sealed has never been adequately explained by the court), but I got my hands on portions. The record shows that in November 2000, investigators with Hynes' office claim to have met with Phillips and concluded he was unfit to direct his finances. Describing the meeting, Joe Hynes told the New York Post, "It was clear [Phillips] was suffering from dementia."

A month later, in December 2000, a former assistant prosecutor from Queens named Frank J. Livoti filed a motion saying that John Phillips, "an alleged incapacitated person," had "requested that [Livoti] be appointed as Guardian" to oversee Phillips' "personal needs and property."

This was news to John Phillips, who claims he made no such request.

When I telephoned Frank Livoti to ask how he came to meet Phillips and get involved in the case, Livoti told me, "I'm not entirely comfortable telling you." (A lawyer close to the case who refused to go on the record later admitted Livoti made the motion specifically at the request of the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, backing Phillips' assertion.)

In New York State, anyone can file a motion to declare a person incompetent. The "alleged incapacitated person" must then defend himself before a judge, proving that he is sane and healthy enough to manage his assets. The county government, if it chooses, can then intervene to appoint a guardian.

The case against Phillips was vetted by an assistant prosecutor in Joe Hynes' senior citizen's fraud unit named Steven Kramer. According to court papers, Kramer alleged that portions of Phillips' vast holdings were being mis-deeded and that illegal mortgages valued at "hundreds of thousands of dollars" had been "fraudulently obtained." In other words, property was being sold off without Phillips' consent. Phillips, the records claim, had fallen victim to a crafty real estate scam, and now the Brooklyn D.A. was kindly stepping in to save him.

Phillips admits that he had "problems" with a former property manager, whom he fired, but says there was nothing of the far-flung fraud the D.A.'s office described. In Frank Livoti's court papers from December 2000, it was claimed that "[c]riminal prosecutions are now pending in Brooklyn with regard to those frauds." Phillips' lawyer, Emani P. Taylor, says that four years later no criminal charges have ever been filed in the matter. Indeed, in a telephone conversation with Steven Kramer that Phillips tape-recorded, Kramer admits that none of Phillips' buildings had in fact been stolen, contradicting his own assertions in the court record.

Kramer visited the old judge several times at his home during the spring of 2001, in one instance entering the house with a pair of detectives who allegedly held Phillips down while Kramer rifled through Phillips' banking and real estate records, eventually boxing them up and removing them to the D.A.'s office. According to that tape-recorded conversation, the records were handed over to a Park Ave. lawyer named Harvey Greenberg, who, as it happened, was Joe Hynes' former campaign treasurer and close friend of 30 years.

Sometime between November and December of 2000, Greenberg was appointed "temporary guardian" of the "mentally incapacitated" Phillips.

Joe Hynes' friend Harvey Greenberg now had control of Phillips' $10 million estate. Though he was guardian for only a few months—soon replaced by the silk-suited Ray Jones, who would allegedly go on to plunder Phillips' properties—Greenberg in February 2001 was effusive to the court about his accomplishment.

"[I]t's wonderful," he told the judge in the case, the Hon. Leonard Scholnick (who, as it happened, was a good friend of Greenberg's), "that all of us have gotten together…calling the world's attention to the plight of Judge Phillips and giving us a potential chance to help him in the future." The following winter, Phillips' heat was cut off, and neighbors found him living in squalor and poor health, wearing an overcoat and hat. As one acquaintance of Phillips' put it, "They wanted him to die." When asked about Phillips' allegations that he is a victim of political persecution, Hynes' spokesman Jerry Schmetterer would only comment that "Judge Phillips was in need of help and we provided it to him."

FRAUD, ABUSE AND CORRUPTION are common among guardianship appointments in every county in the United States. AARP Magazine reports there are at least 600,000 elderly Americans under guardianships, bound in a system "rife with opportunities for financial exploitation, medical neglect, and the wrongful usurping of a competent person's freedom." The keystone witnesses in these usurpations are often court-appointed medical examiners who make cursory, sweeping pronouncements of senility, incompetence, dementia, or, as an Associated Press investigation put it, "of being old and spending money foolishly."

In the case of John Phillips, the court-appointed examiner was downtown Brooklyn medical doctor James Lynch, who on various occasions between 2000 and 2002 diagnosed Phillips with senile dementia. Lynch concluded in August 2002 that "Judge John Phillips continues to suffer from signs and symptoms of cognitive loss" and that he "is unable to advocate for himself or protect himself from harm."

Two months later, Phillips visited a non-court-appointed doctor at the Family Medical Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant. This examiner came to a far rosier diagnosis: Phillips, despite a "mild deficiency in short-term memory," showed "no signs of dementia" and no "evidence of perceptual distortion," scoring 27 out of 30 on the definitive Mini Mental State Examination.

"The evaluation," concluded the examiner, "shows [an] intelligent, coherent, well-articulated male… He has never been a danger to himself or others."

I recently visited the old judge at the now-shuttered Slave Theatre, where Phillips sat with friends at a folding table in the adjoining storefront, discussing the Kafkaesque twists of his case. On the walls were the giant hortatory murals of his heyday. One depicted a dazed-looking black man in overalls and a straw hat, over the bolded caption: "Lost my name, tribal language, my homeland, African wealth! I have nothing!" Another showed a seven-foot-tall hairy gorilla baring its jagged white teeth.

"What do you think of my gorilla?" Phillips asked.

He was less feisty than when I saw him in court in June. His friends say the ordeal of the last four years has weakened his heart; he has more bad days than good. Back in June, he had hoped to nail guardian Ray Jones on allegations of larceny after Jones undersold three of his buildings, valued at $1.5 million, for a mere $425,000 and couldn't account for the proceeds.

But Jones had apparently slipped though the system, though Hynes claimed to have initiated Phillips' guardianship to prevent just such a theft. Meanwhile, Phillips' social security and pension checks, totaling more than $2000 a month, were disappearing into an unknown account, and Phillips was forced to defray the legal expenses of Frank Livoti and his Long Island law firm, which helped prepare the briefs in the ongoing court battle. (If the accused in a guardianship case opts to fight a court's decision, it is the accused who must reimburse the accuser's court fees.)

Thus Frank Livoti's firm, Shaw, Licitra, Bohner, Esernio, Schwartz & Pfluger of Garden City, was paid more than $12,000 from John Phillips' estate.

"This thing started politically, but it's not political today," says Phillips.

Now, he says, it's just about greed. As for Hynes, Phillips predicts that the Brooklyn D.A. will have trouble in his reelection bid next year.

"Hynes knocked me out because I was gonna beat him," Phillips tells me. "It wasn't because of my personality or my popularity in the community. It's because people didn't like Hynes. You must understand: The right guy runs against the D.A. and he'll win."

The right guy in 2001, or almost, turned out to be a woman. Civil rights attorney Sandra Roper, who grew up in Bed-Stuy hearing the legend of the "kung-fu judge," ran in John Phillips' stead in the 2001 primary for Brooklyn district attorney. Roper was warned not to proceed with the challenge but did, coming away with 37 percent of the vote.

In June 2003, she was indicted for her daring in the sullen halls of Brooklyn State Supreme Court. Her accuser, Mary Lee Ward, a former client, claimed Roper conned her out of $8000.

Ward first approached Joe Hynes with the allegations in August 2001, one month after Roper announced her candidacy, and Hynes then referred the complaint to the New York State Appellate Division's grievance committee, which handles claims of wrongdoing by lawyers in the New York bar.

Though the grievance committee dismissed the charges as spurious, Joe Hynes, avoiding the appearance of a conflict—this was by no means a political prosecution—referred the case to a special prosecutor in Manhattan. Seasoned observers asked why the matter was in criminal court in the first place, as fee disputes between lawyers and their clients are normally handled in civil chambers.

Still others wondered why the prosecution was mounted at all, since no less an authority than the state grievance committee had already thrown it out. Charged with multiple counts of grand larceny, Roper faces up to 12 years in prison, though her first trial ended in a hung jury earlier this month, with eight jurors voting to acquit.

When I asked old Judge John Phillips about the Roper case, he smiled and said, "Hynes indicts anyone who runs against him."

Meanwhile, Phillips, once a millionaire, is effectively penniless. At this writing, he's been moved out of his offices at the Slave Theatre and sent by one of his guardians to a room at the Bronx VA Medical Center, where the government can put him up for free.

See the New York Press Story to the right: "Part II - Judge Phillips"


Anonymous said...

The "unified" court system remains in the state that is in for so ling due to the following:
1) corruption is about weak people that cannot validate themselves through any strenghts, because they lack same...fact. oca specifically hires this type of employee and supports this type of judge because they know they have matter what they intend to perform or destroy. i saw professional, attractive, articulate employees rejected for oca employment, and the opposite of above, hired and barely able to learn or function. this went on, over and over again for 30 yrs...till now we have some very malleable, long time employed oca robots..treacherous beyond your belief!
2)the court desperately remains cameras, no public knowledge of judges and their backgrounds before election, and threats to employees that attempt to address anything illegal about oca, including behavior committed against themselves.the offices are now off limits to the agencies that used them openly till 2005! these agencies cannot now view the supposed open operations of a taxpayer funded entity. probation, parole etc have to submit a request to an employee, who should be doing courthouse work, and forced to come back later to retreive the work that should have been done by these county or other state agencies.
The first chance the SAVIOR PHAU gets, suggest she open the courts now, before the taxpayer hears from a national source that this is the game oca has heavily invested in to deny them their right to examine what they paid for!

Anonymous said...

the only thing UNIFIED about the court system is its ability to violate the rights of the citizens, coveringup and obstruction the truth - - - anyone who has ever gone to court even for Jury Duty could pickup on that - - - - the fact that they would rape a (black) former Judge does not surprise me, they eat their own! These people should all go to JAIL.

Anonymous said...

Just to show you how this above situation could happen and will happen again..listen to this.
Judy kaye has taken over all court security, that by the way they utilized for years with the local police and county sheriff's depts. Her statement about that was...we at OCA are much more able to train security than these agencies!????? OCA somewhere along the years, became adept at training law enforcement? how did that happen and is that the job of the judiciary? Big Momma now wants to take over the probation dept. belongs with us! Or did she mean to us!
Now that she has the POLICE power in the courts to rule over anyone working or using the courts, BY THEIR STANDARDS OR INTERFERENCE, she wants more power by owning the regulation agency that deals with many of the lives of mild to moderate criminals..probation. Is the judicial system supposed to be in constant charge of the sentenced or just a monitoring agency, as it has been forever and has worked without any problems ever... away from OCA!
so, you see what this HACK JUDGE is capable of and you can see how court users will remain under the thumb of this BIG BROTHER, and the incidences of illegal behavior by the court can and will, under today's system, make hundreds of victims with NO the poor ex- judge has seen for himself!
This court situation is an EMERGENCY, 911 problem for all of us in NEW YORK STATE!

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