When suspended Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Nocella had to face the music two weeks ago — a hearing on misconduct charges before the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline — he wasn’t alone.
When I looked over the gallery at the courtroom, I recognized more than a dozen ward leaders and Democratic political activists and operatives who were there as character witnesses. They knew Nocella well, because for him and many Philadelphia Philadelphia judges, the route to the bench is through the Democratic City Committee.
Before he was appointed a municipal court judge by then-Gov. Ed Rendell in 2008, Nocella was among the corps of lawyers who provide free legal services to Democratic leaders. Sometimes it’s a petition to get an unendorsed candidate knocked off the ballot. Often it’s just helping the friend or constituent of a ward leader with a legal problem.
Anna Brown of Ward 40B was happy to talk to be about Nocella.
“As a ward leader in Southwest Philadelphia, I came to him many times, and he did so much pro bono work for me,” Brown said.
What kind of cases, I asked her. Divorce, real estate?
“No, no, mostly criminal,” she said, “kids getting into trouble. And you know I always knew I could call on him, count on him. He was always there for my constituents.”
Charlie Bernard, a fixture around the Democratic City Committee for as long as I can remember, said Nocella was known for “service, service, service for people who need service. That’s it.”
To these folks, Tom Nocella was a decent guy who helped other decent people. What could he have done wrong?
Plenty, it turns out
Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts was also in the audience. She spends her life promoting integrity among the judiciary and pushing the idea of merit selection in the Legislature — a hard way to make a living, you might say.
She was well aware of the disciplinary charges against Nocella, and appalled.
“There was a whole slew of not only unethical but illegal conduct,” Marks said, adding later in our conversation that it seemed enough to merit his removal from the bench.
What did Nocella do?
He collected a $60,000 fee on a real estate transaction in which he represented himself as the secretary of a VFW post where he wasn’t a member.
When he was the lawyer for a political committee under investigation by the city Board of Ethics, he admitted lying to the board’s lawyers and, with the committee’s treasurer, draining its assets, in the process giving himself a $2,500 fee. He was held in contempt of court and eventually paid a fine.
Nocella disclosed none of this to the Philadelphia Bar Association when it gave him a “recommended” rating in his 2011 campaign for the Common Pleas bench. That earned the ire of the Bar Association and the state Board of Judicial Conduct, which is pressing the case against him.
Nocella has already been suspended with pay by the state Supreme Court. The Court of Judicial Discipline could impose further sanctions, even remove him from the bench.
Nocella didn’t testify in his hearing, and declined comment afterward. His attorney, Samuel Stretton, doesn’t dispute the factual allegations against his client, including his pocketing the $60,000 from the VFW transaction.
“That obviously shouldn’t have happened, and it would be better if it hadn’t,” Stretton told me after the hearing. “I’m just looking overall at the experience and what he brings to this. Many of these areas were well known to the voters, and they chose him.”
A few voters, anyway.