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Convicted former Allegheny County Common Pleas judge seeks reinstatement of law license

| Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, 12:07 a.m.

A former Allegheny County judge who served nearly 19 months in federal prison for extorting $13,000 from an attorney in 2002 is seeking to get his law license back to open his own legal practice.

Joseph Jaffe, 62, of Dormont filed a 54-page petition in June, asking the state's Disciplinary Board to reinstate his law license. He was disbarred in 2004. The state Supreme Court will have the final say as to whether Jaffe can practice. The board scheduled a reinstatement hearing Sept. 20.

Jaffe is working as a paralegal earning $12.50 per hour for attorney Milton Raiford and doing part-time work as a paralegal for attorney Mark A. Sindler earning $40 per hour, according to his petition.

Jaffe declined to comment. Raiford did not return a call for comment.

“I became an attorney to seek justice. I became a judge to do justice. I surely lost sight of these concepts leading up to my actions in August 2002. I have acknowledged and taken responsibility for those actions. I have no excuses for those actions — explanations but no excuses,” Jaffe wrote in his petition. “I have thought about my criminal behavior and its effect on me, my family and the public every day of my life since Aug. 7, 2002. I have humiliated and embarrassed myself and my family.”

Sindler said the federal courts have approved Jaffe to do paralegal work on some of his court-appointed cases.

“I believe in giving people a second chance. He served his debt to society. The nature of his wrongdoing was severe but not enough to keep him (disbarred) forever,” said Sindler, noting that former state Attorney General Ernie Preate, who was convicted of fraud, has been reinstated. “(Jaffe is) diligent, conscientious and has my clients' best interest at heart.”

Jaffe's petition sparked a sharp rebuke from a former colleague, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, administrative judge of the criminal division.

“I can't speak for my colleagues, but I believe we as a court would be unequivocally opposed to Joseph Jaffe's readmission to the bar,” Manning said. “He committed the most heinous and disgraceful crimes of extortion using the powers of his judicial office to force lawyers representing litigants appearing before him to pay him money for favorable results. No more outrageous abuse of office could occur. He should not now, nor ever, be readmitted to the practice of law.”

The Disciplinary Board's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the prosecutorial arm of the board, filed a two-page motion in August opposing the former judge's reinstatement.

“Mr. Jaffe's conviction involved his use of his official position to obtain property not due him or his office. Mr. Jaffe knew that the property was given because of the power of his official position,” Disciplinary Counsel Samuel Napoli wrote. “The conduct engaged in by Mr. Jaffe was so serious as to preclude his ever being reinstated to the practice of law in Pennsylvania.”

Jaffe became the first Allegheny County Common Pleas judge to be convicted of a felony when he pleaded guilty to extorting $13,000 in cash from attorney Joel Persky to pay off country club fees, medical bills and other debts.

Jaffe took the money during a meeting at Persky's Squirrel Hill home, unaware that Persky was cooperating with the FBI. The FBI recorded and filmed the transaction.

At the time, Persky's firm had more than 1,300 asbestos cases pending before Jaffe.

As part of his plea agreement, Jaffe acknowledged responsibility for offenses contained in other indictments, but did not enter a guilty plea for them. Those indictments accused him of accepting a $12,500 check from attorney Edwin Beachler III, and later pressuring Beachler for a job.

Legal ethics experts said Jaffe may have a tough time persuading the court to reinstate him. Duquesne University law professor Mark Yochum, who teaches professional responsibility, said the law does allow for people who rehabilitate themselves, but that Jaffe committed one of the worst legal sins.

“He has a harder row to hoe, so to speak, because of the nature of his offense,” Yochum said. “Bribery for a judge, case-fixing and certainly selling decisions are the top-of-the-line worst.”

Yochum said Jaffe might have to petition more than once to get his license back.

Jaffe wrote that he apologizes to members of the bench and members of the bar whenever he can.

“I have lost everything — my reputation, my home, the ability to properly support my daughter, my pension, my self-respect,” Jaffe wrote. “I have paid for my crime but I have the desire, the will, the strength to redeem myself, never losing sight of the harm I caused.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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