Prosecutor: Ex-Pa. Judge Lied to Collect Insurance

October 24, 2008

A since-retired state appellate judge used his title and told lies and half-truths about injuries from a slow-speed fender-bender to collect $440,000 from two insurance companies, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday to open the judge’s federal fraud trial.

Former Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce, 59, is charged with two counts of mail fraud and six counts of money laundering. If convicted, he could face prison, fines and the loss of his state pension from the $165,000-a-year job he left after a federal grand jury indicted him last year.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold accused the judge of lying to insurance companies and misleading his doctors about neck and back injuries after his Mercedes Benz was rear-ended by a sport-utility vehicle in August 2001. Trabold called the accident a
“2- to 3-mile-per-hour fender-bender.”

From the moment Joyce confronted the motorist who hit him and continuing through his correspondence with two insurance companies, Joyce introduced himself as a Superior Court judge, Trabold said. He sent one letter on his judicial letterhead to Erie Insurance Co. The company paid him most of the money he received — $390,000 — 11 days after he threatened to sue in another letter.

Trabold said Joyce misled his doctors, and that the ex-judge’s active lifestyle will prove he didn’t suffer the debilitating pain he claimed. Trabold promised proof that Joyce golfed, scuba dived, went inline skating and learned to pilot a small plane in the months after his crash.

“This case is not about that medical testimony,” Trabold said. “You are going to hear an activity level from this defendant that does not match up with his medical claims.”

But Joyce’s attorney, Philip Friedman, told the jury there’s a reason Trabold doesn’t focus on the medical records. The records prove Joyce was injured or, at least, truly believed he was injured, and, as a result, make it impossible for the government to prove fraud, Friedman said.

“Mr. Trabold says, ‘Don’t worry about the medical testimony, don’t worry about medical records’ (but) that’s what the case is about,” Friedman said.

Trabold noted Joyce golfed more than 20 times alone, including trips to Jamaica, New York and Florida, despite telling insurers he was incapable of playing.

The judge renewed his scuba instructor’s license and took a Caribbean scuba-diving trip just days after receiving the insurance money, despite claiming he was in too much pain to swim, Trabold said.

He also completed pilot training and tests and flew for more than 70 hours. He told the Federal Aviation Administration “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him” and listed only gallbladder surgery as a recent medical issue in April 2002, Trabold said.

Meanwhile, the prosecutor said Joyce filed an 18-page letter telling insurers “he was so bad off he thought he had Lou Gehrig’s disease,” a degenerative condition that affects the central nervous system.

Friedman dismissed the letter as a stream of consciousness rant by a man in pain who was concerned that the accident had aggravated an old back injury. Friedman said the judge fudged on the FAA medical information “because he wanted to fly” to make up for the other activities that were now limited or ended.

Friedman also argued that Trabold was twisting the evidence about the judge’s activities.

While it’s true the judge golfed after the accident, he eventually gave it up because of the pain, Friedman said. And while Joyce continued scuba diving, he did so from the beach, not off boats — which is more strenuous.

“Whether he golfs or scuba dives isn’t the issue. That’s not what this case is about,” Friedman said. “He couldn’t do it the way he could do it before.”

The trial is expected to last about a month. Prosecutors will produce travel records, and sign-in sheets from Joyce’s gymnasium, among other evidence, to make its case; the defense is expected to rely heavily on insurance officials and medical experts.

Trabold warned the jury to be wary of the medical testimony, saying he will show Joyce withheld some information from his doctors.

“If you don’t give your doctor 100 percent accurate information, you compromise your doctor’s ability” to accurately diagnose and treat you, Trabold said.

The prosecutor also promised to prove something he doesn’t have to under the law: motive. Trabold said Joyce needed money after a messy breakup with a fiancee, and was so cash-strapped that he lived in his judge’s chambers for months before the insurance settlements, eventually cutting a deal to pay his office landlord $100 a month in rent.

Friedman said the breakup also provided the genesis of the prosecution. He said the insurance companies were content with the settlements until Joyce’s ex-fiancee contacted federal investigators in 2006.

“It’s a witch hunt, pure and simple,” Friedman said, prompted by “a vicious, jilted woman. She’s an architect. She’s the architect from hell.”

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