Judge who presided over Michael Cohen case dies at age 68

NEW YORK — Judge William H. Pauley III, who presided over the criminal case against ex-President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer during a tenure on the federal bench lasting more than two decades, died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 68.

Pauley died at his New York home, according to Edward Friedland, the district executive for the Southern District of New York.

In 2018, Pauley sentenced attorney Michael Cohen to three years in prison after Cohen pleaded guilty to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress. Cohen was freed to home confinement last year during a wider prisoner release program amid the coronavirus outbreak in prisons.

“Somewhere along the way Mr. Cohen appears to have lost his moral compass,” the judge said at sentencing.

In 2003, Pauley sentenced drug-company entrepreneur Sam Waksal to over seven years in prison. Waksal, the founder of ImClone Systems, was at the center of an insider trading scandal that ensnared Martha Stewart.

The prosecutions were among numerous civil and criminal cases of public interest presided over by Pauley, a judge known for firm control of his courtroom and friendliness to everyone he encountered around the courthouse.

In 2013, he ordered a new trial for three of four people convicted in what was then the largest tax fraud in U.S. history, saying a “pathological liar” who served as a juror had corrupted the trial.

The same year, he upheld the legality of the National Security Agency’s collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records, calling it a necessary extension of steps taken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Two years later, Congress limited the program with the passage of the USA Freedom Act.

Two years ago, he rejected a $2 billion deal as insufficient to settle lawsuits over unhealthy conditions for 400,000 residents of the nation’s largest public housing system. He ruled after hearing dozens of residents complain about rats, roaches and mold in their buildings.

“Bill Pauley was a great judge — wise, engaged, excited about his role in making sure that justice was served in every case — and a great friend and colleague,” Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain said. “Our court was better for his presence and he will be sorely missed.”

Judge Colleen McMahon said Pauley was nominated by then-President Bill Clinton and confirmed to the bench in 1998 along with three other judges, including herself. She said they dubbed themselves the “Class of ’98.”

“Our annual dinners were scenes of much merriment and not a little fine scotch,” she said.

“His judicial record speaks for itself, but fewer are aware of his significant presence behind the scenes,” McMahon said of the work Pauley did as chair of the court’s security committee, where he for many years worked with law enforcement partners to keep the courthouses safe for judges, litigants and the public.

“He was a critically important member of the court’s COVID response team from its earliest days,” she said. “He was a wise counselor to anyone who asked him for advice. And that advice was invariably sound. … I will miss him every day.”

Judge Richard M. Berman, another member of the “Class of ’98,” recalled him as “a terrific judge, a wise counsellor to me, and a very good and decent friend.”