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Federal authorities say judge offered illegal payoff

On tape, Jaffe told lawyer he would OK inflated legal fees

Thursday, August 29, 2002

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a meeting secretly taped by federal authorities, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph A. Jaffe told a lawyer how he could use his judicial powers to pay back $13,000 in cash that the lawyer had given him in an envelope.

Jaffe said the attorney could file 26 motions in settled asbestos cases, and he would order insurance companies to pay the lawyer's firm $500 per motion in legal fees, or $13,000.

The judge went on to discuss another repayment method, this one involving a mass settlement conference in the spring of 2003 for all the asbestos cases pending before him. He said he felt this would put pressure on defendants to favorably settle the claims. That would generate legal fees for the asbestos victims' lawyers.

Jaffe evidently did not know that the lawyer, Joel Persky, was cooperating with federal investigators after receiving what he considered an improper request for money from the judge.

Jaffe at the time was presiding over 1,300 cases in which Persky's firm was involved. The firm, Goldberg, Persky, Jennings & White, specializes in representing people who were exposed to asbestos and are seeking damages for health problems.

Rules of conduct for lawyers require them to report any possible ethical or criminal misconduct by judges.

The Aug. 7 meeting, in the living room of Persky's Squirrel Hill home, was arranged after Persky told federal prosecutors that the judge, citing pressing financial debts, had asked him for $13,000.

After the meeting, federal agents stopped Jaffe as he left the home and retrieved the envelope, containing $13,000 in marked money. The next day, Jaffe went on paid leave from his judicial duties. He has not been arrested or charged but could face indictment next month.

Jaffe, 52, of Upper St. Clair, serves in the court's civil division and was assigned 2,062 pending asbestos cases in May.

The judge ran into financial problems after a bitter divorce that stretched over seven years and was concluded in 1997.

Jaffe declined to speak with a reporter who visited his home last night.

Robert R. Leight, a lawyer for Jaffe, could not be reached for comment. Leight is a former federal prosecutor and former FBI agent.

Persky has declined to comment on the investigation.

Earlier this month, the FBI obtained a list, nearly three inches thick, of the hundreds of cases the judge handled in 2000, 2001 and this year.

Federal agents will try to determine if Jaffe asked other lawyers who appeared before him for money or favors.

Jaffe and Persky had encountered each other sporadically over the years before the judge was assigned to handle asbestos cases.

Both attended high school in the city's East End, with Jaffe graduating from Allderdice in 1967 and Persky from Peabody in 1968. Both men graduated from the University of Michigan in 1971. Jaffe earned his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974 and Persky received his there the following year.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has declined to comment or confirm the existence of an investigation.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.

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