Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board has filed a formal complaint against a Philadelphia
trial court judge over allegations that the jurist violated the state constitution and the Code of Judicial Conduct when he failed to disclose certain legal matters he was involved with during his vetting process for judgeship.
Robert A. Graci, chief counsel of the Judicial Conduct Board, and assistant counsel Elizabeth A. Flaherty submitted the complaint Oct. 23 on behalf of the JCB against Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas M. Nocella.
Nocella, who was elected to the bench in January of this year, and currently serves as a jurist in Philadelphia’s Family Court, misrepresented his qualifications for judgeship when he ran for the post back in 2011, the complaint alleges.
Nocella failed to disclose to the Philadelphia Bar Association Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention certain material facts during his candidacy, the JCB charges.
Specifically, the board alleges that Nocella failed to notify those investigating his candidacy of certain legal matters he had been involved with since running for a spot on Philadelphia’s Municipal Court in 2009.
While Nocella lost his primary bid for Municipal Court in 2009, and he was not a judicial candidate in the 2011 primary election for Common Pleas Court, Philadelphia Democratic ward leaders nonetheless nominated Nocella to be the party candidate in the 2011 general election for a vacated judicial seat within the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
When an attorney becomes candidate for judicial office in Philadelphia, the Bar Association’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention notifies the candidate of their internal review process and requests candidate participation, according to the complaint.
Nocella did just that, the record shows.
The problem, the JCB says, is that Nocella failed to disclose in his Personal Data Questionnaire that he had been a party to certain litigation.
One example was that prior to Nocella’s April 2009 interview with the Commission’s Investigative Team, the judge failed to disclose information about his involvement in the case of Philadelphia Board of Ethics v. The Appreciation Fund, Ernest DeNofa, Thomas Nocella, specifically that Nocella was deposed, that he was named as a defendant, and that he was the subject of a petition for contempt.
And while Nocella disclosed to the investigating team that he was a named party in Straughter-Carter Post Noc. 6627, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States et al. v. Monastery Hill Partners, L.P. et al, he left out information in his 2009 Personal Data Questionnaire including facts that he misrepresented his authority to execute documents and collected a $60,000 fee at the property closing, according to the JCB’s complaint.
Nocella again participated in the Commission’s evaluative process during the 2011 general election, the record shows.
Despite the fact that Nocella received a “recommended” rating back in 2009 during the primary race, (the one he lost), the Commission in 2011 requested that Nocella submit an updated evaluation questionnaire to reflect any changes since 2009.
In the 2011 form, Nocella answered “No” in response to the sole question, which was, “Have any material facts occurred since you completed the last questionnaire which would require a change in any of the answers given by you?”
Nocella signed the form certifying that he had answered truthfully, the complaint states.
“Based on his previous preliminary ‘not recommended’ ratings, Judge Nocella was aware that the criteria of financial responsibility, judgment in his professional life, record of character and integrity, and administrative ability were identified by the Commission as problematic,” the JCB’s complaint reads.
Nocella had received some “not recommended” ratings during prior runs for judgeship.
The JCB charges that throughout his 2011 judicial candidacy, Nocella failed to disclose to the Commission any of the material facts that occurred since he submitted his 2009 Personal Data Questionnaire.
“The omission of material facts resulted in a misrepresentation of his credentials,” the complaint states.
On Oct. 28, 2011, the commission’s vice chairman notified Nocella by phone that Nocella was being recommended as a judicial candidate in the upcoming general election.
On Nov. 8, 2011, former Municipal Court Judge Nocella was elected to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
The complaint charges Nocella with violating Canon 7B(1)(c) of the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct, which pertains to campaign conduct, and Canon 2A, which pertains to impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
Nocella is also charged with violating Article V, Section 17 (b) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which says justices and judges shouldn’t engage in activity prohibited by law and shall not violate a canon of legal or judicial ethics.
In 2009, the complaint alleges, Nocella, then a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge, engaged in prohibited activity when he was held in contempt of court by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Gary DiVito for failure to comply with court orders in the 2007 Philadelphia Board of Ethics matter.
Lastly, the complaint accuses Nocella of violating Article V, Section 18 (d)(1) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which prohibits a judge from engaging in conduct that brings disrepute to the judicial office.
The JCB says Nocella did this when he omitted or misrepresented material facts in his responses to the questionnaires and failed to subsequently inform the Commission of material facts that were additions or changes to the information contained in Nocella’s answers.