Erasing the Kung-Fu Judgeby Christopher Ketcham
The case of the plundering of the estate of retired judge John L. Phillips is the nexus where corruption and a rainbow coalition of cliché meet, Brooklyn-style: you have an Irish hack district attorney and an Italian magistrate who is either a greedhead or an imbecile, plus a Jewish money-man for the D.A. allegedly buying up property at fixed auctions, not to mention a viper’s nest of well-dressed blacks from the neighborhood getting their taste. Indeed, Kafka, Dickens and Scorsese together would have a hard time fictionalizing the web of courtroom criminality that has ensnared 84-year-old Phillips, himself retired from the very Brooklyn “justice system” that has presided over the dissolution of his affairs.
Phillips was once known as the Kung-Fu Judge for his habit of employing martial arts moves on the bench. He grew up poor on a Kansas farm, served in World War II, was the first black man to be admitted to the Montana State Bar, studied kung-fu in Japan, and eventually became a self-made millionaire buying up real estate in Bedford-Stuyvesant. When he ran for a judgeship in Brooklyn civil court in 1976 as the anti-machine candidate, his hired sound-trucks blasted the hit song, “Kung-Fu Fighting.”
Fast-forward a quarter-century: In 2000, Brooklyn D.A. Charles “Joe” Hynes, a master of the tricks of the law who had become one of the most powerful machine politicians in the borough, began a secret action to seal up Phillips’ assets and declare him mentally incompetent. Hynes claimed he was concerned about the old man’s health—Phillips was 77 years old at the time, long retired from the bench, and had no close relatives, and so Hynes sought to “help” him, according to public statements. But others wonder if Hynes’ concern was a calculation of the coldest kind: Phillips had tried to run for the D.A.’s seat in 1997—until Hynes’ election lawyers knocked him off the ballot—and the humiliating loss Hynes suffered in the 1998 race for governor suggested the D.A. was vulnerable again in 2001, when he was up for a fourth term. Phillips was thus considered a potential challenger to Hynes in 2001.
The court record shows that in November 2000 investigators from Hynes office allegedly determined that Phillips “was suffering from dementia,” according to a statement Hynes himself later gave to the New York Post. In December 2000, a former assistant state prosecutor from Long Island named Frank J. Livoti mysteriously appeared on the scene. Livoti filed a motion in Brooklyn court stating that Phillips, “an alleged incapacitated person,” had “requested that [Livoti] be appointed as Guardian” to oversee Phillips’ “personal needs and property.”
Phillips, who today is barred from speaking to reporters without permission of the court, was quick in 2001 to note the ridiculousness of Livoti’s claims. “I have never met a Frank Livoti and I believe he is scheming to seize my property,” Phillips wrote to his attorney in a letter dated April 11, 2001. “I believe also that a Mr. Kramer, assistant district attorney in the Kings County D.A.’s office, is behind a plan to declare me incompetent prior to my announcing my candidacy in the Democratic primary against Mr. Charles Hynes.” When I first investigated the Phillips story in 2004—eventually publishing an article for New York Press—I telephoned Livoti to ask him the obvious: why would a black judge from the heart of black Brooklyn choose as his guardian a white man from Long Island he’d never met? Livoti said, “I’m not entirely comfortable telling you about the status of any investigations involving Judge Phillips.” I pushed, and Livoti admitted—as I taped the conversation—that he was brought in specifically at the request of the Brooklyn D.A.’s office. His contact there? Steven Kramer, an assistant prosecutor under Joe Hynes.
Livoti, in effect, was the beard for the operation, but it was Steven Kramer who had visited the old judge several times at his home during the winter of 2000-2001, in one instance entering the house with a pair of detectives, who allegedly held Phillips down while Kramer rifled through Phillips’ banking and real estate records, eventually boxing them up and removing them to the D.A.’s office. In a second taped conversation, this one between Kramer and Phillips in early 2001, Kramer admits to raiding the house and commandeering the files. He also tacitly warns the old man, “We know you did it before,” referring to Phillips’ run for D.A. in 1997.
In New York State, anyone can file a motion to declare a person incompetent. The “alleged incapacitated person” is essentially now an accused person: He must defend himself before the court. In February 2001, Phillips was declared “mentally incompetent” by a judge he used to work with. (At the time, Phillips suffered from “mild Alzheimer’s,” according to court records.) His sizable estate, worth an estimated $10 million, was initially handed to a court-appointed guardian named Harvey Greenberg, who happened to be Joe Hynes’ former campaign treasurer and chief of staff as well as one of the D.A.’s oldest friends. Beyond the ostensible concern for Phillips’ health, Hynes also claimed in court papers that Phillips had been the victim of a real estate swindle in 2000 in which illegal mortgages valued at “hundreds of thousands of dollars” had been “fraudulently obtained” while property had been sold off without Phillips’ consent. “Criminal prosecutions” were “pending,” according to Livoti’s court papers. Yet strangely Hynes never arrested or charged anyone in those alleged crimes.
What was clear was that Hynes’ good friend Harvey Greenberg now had control of Phillips’ estate (the guardianship was soon handed off to Livoti; over the years it would get handed off again and again to new players). Greenberg, who runs a law practice out of his Park Avenue offices, was effusive. “It’s wonderful,” he told the court as Phillips stood by, “that all of us have gotten together…calling the world’s attention to the plight of Judge Phillips…[and] giving us a potential to help him in the future.” The following winter, Phillips’ electricity was cut off, neighbors found him living in squalor, and his health had collapsed. Soon the heat in his Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone went dead—the guardians failed to pay the bills—leaving the old man to shiver through two winters as neighbors took up a collection to buy him oil for his furnace. In 2004, he was forcibly moved out of Brooklyn and into a Bronx nursing home, where he was fitted with a tracking bracelet. Then, in November of that year, the brownstone where Phillips lived for most of his adult life caught fire. The building itself remains a shell, gutted and charred, its front yard taken over by a family of cats; the guardians failed to pay fire insurance. Gone were Phillips’ files, his law library, his yellowing news archive (“Kung-Fu Judge Beats the Machine – Again!”).
One of the last times I talked with Phillips in person was in the winter of 2006, when he was being held at a Bronx nursing home. It was January and cold and the sun was low through the windows of the facility, which was shabby and smelled of bleach. A crumbling man with one leg passed down the hall in a motorized wheel-chair, bound for a bingo game. “Since I entered this building, I have not been out that door in a year,” said Phillips. He wore old black slacks and a starched white dress shirt buttoned to the collar; the tracking bracelet on his wrist was disguised as a watch. We talked about his house burning down. “My home,” he said, suddenly sounding defeated as never before. “My home. All my things. I don’t know what to say.”
In cities where gentrification has led to skyrocketing property values, it is with increasing frequency that the elderly in communities of color—their homes a target of profiteers—come under an assault as virulent as plague but conducted with the soft hands of the courts, the deed transfer, the breathy promises of lawyers. Such is the case, for example, in Phillips’ beloved Bed-Stuy.
Phillips’ guardians and their assorted camp followers and friends lined up for a piece of the action in a neighborhood that was now gold. Here in 2002-03 was Ray Jones, a black attorney, appointed to mind Phillips after Harvey Greenberg and Frank Livoti stepped down. Jones attended court hearings unshaven in a white suit and sockless loafers and in the manner of a light breeze. According to complaints filed by supporters of Phillips, he allegedly profited from the shady, if not plainly illegal, sale of several of Phillips’ buildings. Or here, in 2004-06, was Emani Taylor, coiffed in a pile of dreadlocks, in her blue suit, looking like a defender of the downtrodden and yet the most profligate of the thieves—reportedly stealing over $1 million. Taylor roams free today, practicing law and cashing Phillips’ pension and social security checks.
Emani Taylor is only a bit player. That she and the other court-appointed guardians have enjoyed such latitude in their gaming is arguably due to one man alone: the Hon. Michael Pesce, the machine-elected judge who has presided over the Phillips case. While Hynes started the ball in the liquidation of Phillips’ estate, Judge Pesce has kept it rolling through what amounts to either a) superhuman incompetence, or b) quiet complicity with much to gain.
The list of Pesce’s offenses in overseeing the Phillips matter grew almost from day one. Phillips on his own had never missed filing his taxes, but since 2001 and the takeover of his estate by the court, not a single tax return has been submitted by his guardians, which apparently did not perturb Pesce. Yet didn’t he know that guardians need to pay taxes for those they guard? Under state law, an accounting is required every year and following every new sale of property in the life of an estate. At least ten buildings have been sold in seven years—that’s 17 accountings that should have been conducted. To date, there has not been a single complete accounting of the Phillips estate under Pesce’s oversight. Phillips’ multiple attorneys have pleaded with Pesce to demand accountings from guardians Livoti and Greenberg. But Pesce has refused. Why? Meanwhile, all of Phillips’ real estate matters are now being handled in the Brooklyn courthouse “under seal,” i.e. in total secrecy. Again, why?
It’s also notable that Pesce approved the sale of three of Phillips’ buildings for several million dollars—and then recused himself from overseeing the transaction fully, claiming a self-described “conflict of interest” (which he never explained). In order for the sale to be completed, Pesce handed oversight to another judge, who reviewed the particulars and signed off “under seal.” “Like a game of bad cop, bad cop,” says an observer close to the Phillips case. (The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct is investigating Pesce’s conflict of interest in the matter.) The irony, unremarked, was that Pesce in his youth as a defense lawyer used to practice before Phillips when he was the judge.
In the end Pesce was kind enough to order a full accounting from just one guardian, Emani Taylor, who last year admitted to taking $300,000 in unauthorized legal fees from Phillips’ estate. On June 12 of this year, a court-appointed independent investigator found that Taylor in fact appropriated at least $1.6 million in withdrawals of up to $800,000 each. Several of her many family members apparently received $50,000 checks. Taylor also allegedly each month was pocketing Phillips’ pension and social security checks, a value of more than $24,000 a year.
And Pesce’s response? First it was to fine Taylor $250 (you read that right: $250). Taylor has disputed this draconian measure, and now, when asked for an accounting, variously claims that the paperwork was lost in a flood and/or—take your pick—that an associate disappeared with the pertinent files on a surprise trip to Indonesia. She has also noted the obvious: Why, she asks, is she alone forced to submit an accounting while the other guardians—Greenberg and Livoti in particular—have not been required to do the same?
Why might Pesce not want to open this door? Given that the Phillips file is sealed from public view, one can only speculate. Perhaps Pesce, who is close to Joe Hynes, wishes to protect Hynes’ confederate Greenberg from negative exposure. Consider Greenberg’s connection to one of the early sales of buildings from the Phillips estate. In 2002, several buildings that boasted storefronts on busy Nostrand Avenue were sold at closely-held unpublished auctions—in violation of state law—and for less than a third of their market value, according to a complaint filed by Phillips’ attorneys. The buyers in this sweetheart deal were individuals linked to Harvey Greenberg through previous real estate transactions. Illegal property dealings by Greenberg would of course bring the corruption in the Phillips matter straight to the D.A.’s door.
In the meantime, the Phillips estate is transformed to meet the profit margins of the new landscape. At his Nostrand Avenue properties, Phillips once maintained a dojo where he taught kung-fu and a political clubhouse he called the Gorilla Lounge. Phillips was obsessed with gorillas—his connection, he said, with “the African homeland.” He commissioned artists to paint extravagantly colored murals across the walls of the clubhouse, murals of gorillas in the jungles of Africa, gorillas thinking, talking, gesturing. Sometimes a figure that resembled Phillips—on closer inspection, was Phillips—appeared among the gorillas with sunlight flowering behind him on the savannah. Meanwhile, a cassette recorder in his offices played, on loop, the sounds of the jungle: calls of monkeys, crickets, tree-frogs, coos of birds, roars of lion: a distant noise, so low in volume that it took newcomers’ ears a moment to register.
When I last went to the Gorilla Lounge in 2004, it was being gutted, the gorillas on the murals torn down—as if a piece of Phillips himself was going—and the spaces were being renovated for re-sale at prices likely higher than the cash-poor community of Bed-Stuy can afford.
There is a shred of good news in this awfulness: after years of petitioning the court, Phillips’ supporters finally secured his release in mid-May from the decrepitude of the Bronx nursing home and helped him move to a handsome apartment overlooking Prospect Park. On Father’s Day, June 17, an old friend picked him up from the apartment and brought him to one of his properties nearby, the legendary Slave Theatre on Fulton Street—which somehow has been saved from the auction block, but perhaps not for long. Like the Gorilla Lounge, the Slave was adorned in paintings of Africa, of Africans brought in chains to the shores of America, and of gorillas on the march. Phillips once said that he named the theater this because “you don’t want to run from your history.” At least 300 residents on that Sunday filled the theatre to honor the Kung-Fu Judge, and the organizers presented him with a plaque that lauded him as a “Black Pioneer.” At the bottom of the plaque were the words, “Getting Free Celebration at the Slave Theatre.”
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer for Harper's, GQ, Mother Jones and many other magazines, divides his time between Brooklyn and the redrock country of Utah. He can be reached at email@example.com.