Panel To Look into Court's Handling of Guardianship Case
Complainant Interviewed in Case of Retired Judge's Mishandled Estate
By Charles Sweeney
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
ADAMS STREET — In the widening investigation into the mishandling of a retired judge’s estate, a state judicial review panel has opened an inquiry into a Brooklyn judge’s handling of a guardianship case. The complaint alleges that court-appointed property guardians in the case of retired Judge John Phillips sold off real estate belonging to his estate, a violation of New York State Mental Hygiene Law, while a Brooklyn judge overseeing the case failed to enforce regulations designed to prevent such improprieties.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct’s decision to open its inquiry comes on the heels of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s decision to investigate the former court-appointed property guardian to Phillips’ estate, attorney Emani P. Taylor, after the current property guardian found evidence that hundreds of thousands of dollars have not been properly accounted for.
Charges that the guardianship court has mishandled Phillips’ estate have been leveled by Phillips’ supporters before, and the Eagle has published several stories detailing efforts by friends and supporters of Phillips to get a true accounting of his once-considerable estate.
One of those supporters, Dee Woodburne, a self-described “friend” of Phillips and a well-known community activist in Bedford-Stuyvesant, recently filed a complaint with the State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct.
In her complaint, Woodburne alleges the presiding judge in the case, state Supreme Court Justice Michael Pesce, failed to enforce the state’s mental hygiene laws — rules and regulations that would have prevented Taylor and previous property guardians from raiding his estate by selling off properties and pocketing the proceeds.
Pesce took over the Phillips case in the fall of 2003, after Supreme Court Justice Leonard Scholnick — at the time a presiding judge in the guardianship court — declared Phillips an “incapacitated person.” Woodburne, who started an ad-hoc group of Phillips’ supporters, filed her complaint in April 2006, writing to the state panel after previous efforts to have these problems addressed had failed.
“I wrote them a letter, which was a formal complaint from the Committee to Free Judge Phillips and Restore his Estate,” Woodburne said. “The letter stated there were improprieties in the way that the guardianship proceedings have been implemented.”
Woodburne said the subject of her interview with officials from the Commission on Judicial Conduct was confidential, though she did give the Daily Eagle some of the specific allegations made in her complaint.
“Allowing Emani Taylor to act as both the attorney for Judge Phillips as well as his guardian of person and property was a violation of Article 81 of the state’s mental hygiene law,” Woodburne said.
“Also, there had been no financial accounting of Judge Phillips’ estate,” Woodburne added, noting that under state law, property guardians are required to file an annual accounting of all financial transactions concerning an estate.
In the six-plus years that Phillips’ estate has been under the control of the guardianship court, there has only been one partial accounting — coming nearly two years after then-property guardian Ray Jones resigned his post, a post which Taylor assumed on Sept. 4, 2003.
Woodburne said she also included in her complaint Judge Pesce’s alleged approval of what she said was a “dubious real estate transaction,” despite his attempt to recuse himself from reviewing the sale because of a conflict of interest, a conflict Woodburne details in her complaint.
That transaction involved the sale of three Brooklyn apartment buildings that Woodburne said were sold for much less than their market value.
From Civil Servant
Woodburne, whose career has ranged from support staff at the Legal Aid Society to a 10-year stint in the city Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, has also been a devoted community activist throughout nearly all of her adult life.
Her commitment to Phillips began after he was declared an ‘incapacitated person’ by the guardianship court in February 2001, after which he found himself homeless and destitute — a result of the court seizing his assets and freezing his bank accounts.
“It’s been a struggle to restore his estate since I became involved in 2003,” Woodburne said. “I’m hopeful that certain information has come out and that now Judge Phillips has a chance for his property to be restored and to return to his home in his community.”
Taylor, meanwhile, has been ordered by Pesce to provide an accounting of Phillips’ estate by today’s scheduled hearing on the matter in Civil Supreme Court at 360 Adams St. She also faces criminal investigation by the Brooklyn DA’s Office for her alleged mishandling of Phillips’ estate.
Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn District Attorney, confirmed that Taylor was recently served with a grand jury subpoena, but would not reveal any details about the probe.
“We can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” Schmetterer said.
When told the Brooklyn DA’s Office had served Taylor with a Grand Jury subpoena, Woodburne expressed relief.
“I’m glad she’s under investigation,” she commented. “It’s been a long fight, and this situation is finally where it needs to be at this point. We can only hope that the truth comes out.”