Guardians of Retired Judge Accused of Lax Accounting and Improprieties
By TRYMAINE LEE
Those close to retired Judge John L. Phillips Jr., including his court-appointed property guardian, blame his previous guardians for much of the financial mess that may force the sale of the Slave Theater to pay the judge’s debts.
The guardian, James Cahill Jr., says in court filings that those who used to be responsible for Mr. Phillips’s financial affairs not only mismanaged them but never paid taxes or filed timely accountings. Both are violations of the statute that governs Brooklyn’s guardianship program.
At least one of the former guardians, Emani P. Taylor, was not bonded, another violation, according to Ezra Glazer, a lawyer for Symphony Moss of Ohio, Mr. Phillips’s niece and current personal guardian.
The former guardians accused in court papers are Harvey L. Greenberg, Frank J. Livoti, Ray Jones and Ms. Taylor, all lawyers.
According to reports filed in court by Mr. Cahill, Ms. Taylor wrote herself hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of checks from Mr. Phillips’s accounts. He alleged in the filings that she also paid about $100,000 to relatives and friends.
Ms. Taylor was named interim guardian after Mr. Livoti and Mr. Jones were taken off the case. In an interview, she said that she was initially brought into the fold as Mr. Phillips’s lawyer, through a mutual acquaintance, after friends of the retired judge said that Mr. Livoti and Mr. Jones were not properly caring for his estate. Ms. Taylor said friends of Mr. Phillips told her that he was at times without heat or hot water.
Mr. Livoti and Mr. Jones declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Greenberg, the first court-appointed guardian, said that he served only a few months before stepping down after he realized how complicated the guardianship case was, especially because of the many characters who he said claimed to be Mr. Phillips’s “friends” but instead were ripping him off.
“It became messy because he was incompetent before the world recognized that he was incompetent,” Mr. Greenberg said. “It’s a very sad case. I have been guardian for 30 years in this business, and I saw what was going on and I didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Mr. Greenberg said he accepted no fees. He said that he had followed the case and that he “can’t understand why the guardian charged up a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
Ms. Taylor, who was Mr. Phillips’s guardian for three years beginning in September 2003, said she inherited a hopelessly disorganized guardianship account with few, if any, records or documents showing which properties of Mr. Phillips’s had been sold, which he still owned or how much money he had. She said she could not even collect Mr. Phillips’s pension checks because she had no idea where they were being mailed.
Ms. Taylor acknowledged that she paid herself roughly $300,000 from the judge’s estate but said she had been paying for clothing and food for him out of her own pocket.
“I still don’t believe I did anything wrong,” Ms. Taylor said. “I received a guardianship account that was bankrupt. I wrote an order to the best of my ability, and that order was in consideration of the numerous people that needed to be paid in the future. At the point I was finally able to have the funds to pay persons, I rightfully believe that I was one of those persons.”
Ms. Taylor said she hired relatives and trusted friends, saying that otherwise payment would have been required upfront.
Reports filed in court by Mr. Cahill show checks totaling nearly $50,000 that were paid to Ms. Taylor’s mother, a registered nurse who for a time housed and cared for Mr. Phillips; roughly $40,500 that was paid to her son and daughter; and more than a dozen checks totaling about $15,000 that were written to another person believed to be a relative.
Ms. Taylor defended her hiring of family members, saying that she paid her daughter and son-in-law, a licensed contractor, about $35,000 for contracting work on some of Mr. Phillips’s property, roughly half of what she says she owed them. Ms. Taylor said she paid her son a few thousand dollars over the years for work including cutting Mr. Phillips’s hair, providing security for her when she checked the judge’s property and acting as a property manager at some of the more “troubled” spots he owned.
Mr. Glazer, the lawyer for Mr. Phillips’s niece, said Ms. Taylor’s methods were improper.
“There was never a court order allowing her to pay herself,” he said. “Anybody that has ever been appointed guardian knows full well that they have to submit an affirmation of legal services, and it is up to the court to determine if that affirmation is correct.”
Hearings will soon be under way to determine if Ms. Taylor broke any laws by paying herself. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office declined to press charges against Ms. Taylor and referred the matter to a lawyer’s disciplinary committee.
The judge overseeing the guardianship case, Justice Michael L. Pesce of Brooklyn Supreme Court, recently recused himself.
Dee Woodburne, a former paralegal who has been trying to get some of Mr. Phillips’s assets returned to him, filed a complaint last year with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct regarding Justice Pesce’s handling of the case. He did not respond to a request for comment last week.
A judicial committee spokesman said that he could not confirm or discuss any matter in which the committee had not reached a conclusion.