Judge Tills traveled with woman he jailed on prostitution charge
Former state justice is a central figure in probe of activities of Buffalo Jesters
By Dan Herbeck - News Staff Reporter
Updated: 04/06/08 8:38 AM
Ex-Justice Ronald Tills resigned as state hearing officer.
A woman who faced drug and prostitution charges in State Supreme Court Justice Ronald H. Tills’ courtroom later accompanied him on an out-of-state trip for a fraternal organization called the Jesters. Investigators are trying to determine whether the woman offered her services as a prostitute at the convention or whether she was just a guest of the judge, who has since retired.
Federal agents are investigating Tills’ involvement with the woman in a spinoff to their probe of human trafficking and prostitution at local massage parlors.
According to five sources close to the investigation, Tills became personally acquainted with the woman after she served six months of jail time he imposed and while he was still on the bench.
Authorities and judicial ethics experts said it would be inappropriate for a judge to engage in any sexual relationship with a woman who had previously been sentenced in his courtroom.
The U.S. attorney’s office and a Buffalo FBI spokesman declined to confirm or deny that the former judge’s dealings with the woman are under investigation.
Tills’ attorney, Terrence M. Connors, was reached by telephone out of town, where he is preparing for a trial, and declined to comment, except to say he and Tills are aware of the investigation.
But sources close to the investigation said the woman is a Buffalo resident in her 40s. Federal agents have contacted her, and she is represented by attorney Joseph M. LaTona.
“The only thing I will confirm is that I do represent her,” LaTona said. “In light of an ongoing investigation, I’m unable to say anything beyond that.”
Tills, 73, is a central figure in a federal probe into the activities of the Buffalo chapter of the Jesters, a nationwide club that says its goal is to spread “mirth and merriment.”
Members of a human trafficking task force are investigating allegations that some of the Buffalo Jesters hired prostitutes — including some who worked in massage parlors — and took them to out-of-state conventions of the Jesters.
The investigation prompted Tills last month to resign from his job as a $300-a-day hearing officer with the state court system. He had previously served as a state judge, retiring in 2005.
The same investigation prompted Tills’ former law clerk, Michael Stebick, to resign from his job reviewing pistol permit applications for the state court.
Retired Lockport police Capt. John Trowbridge pleaded guilty March 20 to a felony violation of the Mann Act. He awaits sentencing.
Trowbridge has told federal agents that Tills accompanied him on two out-of-state trips with prostitutes and that Stebick accompanied him on another.
The woman Tills is associated with is described as a West Side resident whom the judge had sentenced after she was arrested on felony charges of selling cocaine, possessing cocaine and offering to commit prostitution with two undercover cops.
The woman took a plea deal, sources said, admitting to a single felony count of attempted sale of cocaine. In February 1998, Tills sentenced her to six months in jail and put her on probation for five years.
In December 2000, the woman was back in Tills’ courtroom, accused of violating her probation. A month later, Tills ordered her to spend 90 days in a drug counseling program, sources said.
She later got a job as a cleaner in the Erie County Courthouse on Franklin Street, where her duties included cleaning Tills’ courtroom and chambers. According to a worker at the courthouse and five sources familiar with the investigation, the woman frequently visited with Tills in his court chambers.
Authorities have declined to comment on when or where the woman accompanied Tills on a Jesters trip.
Andrew B. Isenberg, district executive for the Eighth Judicial District of the state courts, said he was unaware of any allegations of an improper relationship between Tills and the woman. Authorities said the woman no longer works for the county.
While declining to comment on Tills’ case, an expert on judicial ethics said judges are supposed to follow “very high ethical standards” in their dealings with people who have appeared in their courts for official business.
Under the codes of judicial conduct in New York State and elsewhere, judges “are supposed to avoid impropriety and any situation that would give the appearance of impropriety,” said Cynthia Gray, director of the American Judicare Society’s Center for Judicial Ethics.
“Judges are not allowed to use their position off the bench to gain any kind of benefits. Situations where judges have a relationship with anyone who had appeared before them are fraught with potential ethical problems,” Gray said.
Gray added that she is unaware of the facts in Tills case and was speaking in general terms about judicial ethics.
A national spokesman for the Jesters told The Buffalo News that the club does not condone hiring prostitutes for its meetings and events. He said that if any members of the Buffalo club did so, their actions were not sanctioned by the club.
The Jesters have more than 23,000 members in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Panama. Over the years, members have included prominent businessmen and two presidents, the late Harry S. Truman and the late Gerald R. Ford. In order to become a Jester, a person must be a Shriner and a Mason, the spokesman said.
The human trafficking task force includes members of the FBI, U.S. Border Patrol, Erie County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.