At long last, please set Judge Phillips free

Could the tragic, six-year-long saga of retired Brooklyn Civil Court judge John L. Phillips finally be nearing a conclusion?

In 2001, Phillips was placed under a county-run guardianship program because he was declared to be “mentally incompetent” and needed the aid of government.

Now, six years later, this self-made multi-millionaire who served honorably for 13 years, is destitute and confined against his will to a Bronx nursing home. He is barred from receiving visitors or mail or even phone calls without permission of the court. His property has been sold off in unpublished and possibly illegal auctions. Millions in assets have disappeared.

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Judge Phillips’s epic troubles began when Assistant District Attorney Steven Kramer, who worked for DA Joe Hynes, sought to have a guardian appointed for Phillips, claiming concern about the safety of the old man’s considerable assets. Phillips was 77 years old at the time and had no family, and Hynes sought to “help” him, according to letters his office has written to The Brooklyn Paper and elsewhere. A question exists, however, that Hynes may have had another concern — after all, Phillips had tried to unseat the DA in 1997 and was gearing up for another run.

In New York State, anyone can file a motion to declare a person incompetent. The alleged “incapacitated person” essentially becomes an accused person: He must defend himself before a judge. In February 2001, Phillips was declared “mentally incompetent” by Judge Leonard Scholnick, who has since retired. His sizable estate, worth an estimated $10 million, was initially handed over by Scholnick to a court-appointed guardian named Harvey Greenberg, Hynes’s former chief of staff.

Assistant DA Kramer claimed in court papers that Phillips needed protection because he had been the victim of a real-estate swindle. But in a July 2004 court appearance, Hynes’s office told the court that the investigation into the alleged scam had yielded no arrests and would be closed. The irony is that Hynes’s “help” — in the form of a round-robin of guardians lining up at the trough of Phillips’s estate — opened the doors to the kind of swindling against which the court-appointed lawyers were supposed to protect.

Things sped downhill for Phillips once the DA stepped in. In 2002, the electricity and heat in his Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone were shut off — the bills went unpaid by the guardians — leaving the old man to shiver through two winters. Phillips had never missed filing his taxes, but since the 2001 takeover of his estate by the court, not a single tax return has been submitted by his “guardians.” In November 2004, the brownstone where Phillips lived caught fire. Now the building is a shell; the guardians had failed to pay fire insurance.

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Since 2001, there has been no official accounting of the assets in his estate, despite requests by Phillips’s pro-bono lawyer. Where are the rent rolls from his 16 buildings — a revenue of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year? Where are the sale proceeds from the buildings themselves?

The most recent guardian, a lawyer named Emani Taylor, admitted to the court that she took at least $187,000 from Phillips’s accounts. Taylor testified that she felt she was owed the money, but Judge Michael Pesce demanded that she return it. Taylor is disputing this order, claiming that her records were lost in a flood and, more alarmingly, that an associate disappeared with the pertinent papers on a trip to Indonesia.

Since 2005, Phillips’s supporters have filed complaints about the handling of the case with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Office of Court Administration, and to chief judge Judith Kaye. To date, there has been no response.

Why haven’t these agencies investigated or intervened?

When I last interviewed Phillips in person, in February 2006, I was forced to sneak into the Bronx nursing home to avoid Pesce’s court-ordered lockdown. Phillips looked fit and healthy. Around him were legless women in wheelchairs. In conversation, Phillips mentioned how once in Russia he was mistaken for the great baritone and political agitator Paul Robeson, who under the weight of his own duel with government became a shell of himself in old age. I noticed he wore a tracking bracelet on his left wrist. “Paul Robeson!” he said. “My, my — that was a nice thing to be mistaken for him.”

It struck me as outrageous, almost unbelievable, that a respected judge had come to this. “If it can happen to him,” a friend of his told me, “it can happen to anyone.”

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On April 29, Phillips made yet another in a long line of appearances in Pesce’s court. There was discussion, yet again, of moving him out of the nursing home into his niece’s apartment or into an assisted living center on Prospect Park West. The event was mostly identical to the scores of court-dates in the five years previous: the case was adjourned, and Phillips, now 84, was sent back to his Bronx limbo.

Phillips's court appearance on May 10 was expected to result in the same treatment. But Pesce stunned the courtroom by ordering that Phillips be released from the Bronx nursing home and placed in the care of an assisted living facility, where he would no longer be barred from seeing people. It was a step forward, but it was not the “milestone moment” as Pesce called it because there is still no punishment for those involved in plundering Phillips's estate.

So perhaps Judge Phillips will soon be free, but there's still more work to be done to clean up this rotten affair.