A judge once publicly complained that Charles R. Johnson, the former chief justice of the sprawling Boston Municipal Court, “is almost never at his post,” setting off a controversy that simmered for years. Last November, administrators replaced Johnson as chief justice, setting him on a path to retirement.
But in the final six months of his career, court records show, the 65-year-old judge appears to have done a disappearing act at a significant cost to the Commonwealth.
After his demotion from chief justice, Johnson took a paid three-month leave in January and then appeared in court only a handful of times in the three months after that. But during that stretch of time, he qualified for two raises that boosted his annual salary to nearly $160,000 and his pension by nearly $20,000 a year.
As a result of the well-timed exit, he qualified for a pension of $119,781 a year, though he has elected to take a smaller amount of $97,865 a year to ensure survivor payments for his wife if he dies first.
And, despite all of Johnson’s time off in 2014, he still received a payment of $40,200 for unused sick and vacation time when he retired days after the second pay increase took effect, according to the state comptroller.
Court officials said Johnson used some accumulated sick and vacation time to take an extended leave starting Jan. 2 and later helped his successor, Roberto Ronquillo Jr., with the transition during the month of April. But they declined to discuss Johnson’s overall work this year or his reasons for retiring five years before mandatory retirement age.
“Judges’ decisions about their retirement plans are personal decisions that they make,” said Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, who has previously praised Johnson in a statement as someone who “led the Boston Municipal Court through a period of dynamic change.”
However, taxpayer watchdogs criticized Johnson’s work this year as a waste of scarce resources.
“Whatever the rationale in this particular case,” said Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer, “it illustrates the all-too-common problem of stretching the system for personal gain at taxpayers’ expense.”
Former Boston Municipal Court Judge Peter Anderson, who said he retired in 2007 because he no longer wanted to work in Johnson’s “dysfunctional” court, said court administrators have long known about Johnson’s shortcomings but did nothing.
“The issues of his not showing up for work and his management style have gone on for years,” said Anderson, who accused Johnson of being a no-show in a 2007 retirement letter that someone leaked to the media. “There is a real need for the leadership to get some backbone and take on these tough issues. . . . They keep doing this kind of thing over and over again.”
Johnson did not return repeated calls for comment placed to his cellphone, adult son, or friends, and he did not answer when a Globe reporter visited his home. Court officials also attempted to reach Johnson on behalf of the Globe, but were unsuccessful.
However, a defense lawyer who worked with Johnson in Roxbury before he was named to the bench in 1984 by Governor Michael Dukakis, described him as an “even tempered, very smart, and very fair judge.”
John Amabile said that Johnson, a graduate of Tuskegee University and Harvard Law School, is quite formal, and polite, preferring to be known as “Charles” and not “Charley.”
“When he got on the bench, he was appreciated by everybody, including people on the prosecution side,” said the lawyer, Amabile. “He treated the police, the prosecution, and the defendants fairly. He wasn’t just a good judge. He was a great judge.”
Johnson was named to manage the eight courthouses of the Boston Municipal Court system in 2003 and received a second five-year term in 2008.
Along the way, he had successes — top court officials selected him to preside over a high-profile libel suit pitting Judge Ernest Murphy against the Boston Herald.
But Johnson came under attack from Anderson and others who said his hands-off management style helped slow the wheels of justice, including a backlog of 3,000 cases at the Roxbury branch of the municipal courts in 2011.
When Fox 25 reported on the controversy in 2011, Johnson issued a statement, saying, “I am dedicated to my office and all of my energy is consistently focused on the effective administration of the Boston Municipal Court department.”
Chief Justice Carey replaced Johnson on Nov. 15, 2013, with Ronquillo, who had been in the East Boston court. That cleared the way for Johnson either to retire or return to presiding over cases instead of managing the courts.
But Johnson took what court officials called an “accrued leave” on Jan. 2, 2014, time off that can be taken for medical or personal reasons, though the court disclosed no reason for Johnson’s leave. He remained on leave until the end of March.
Then, according to trial court officials, Ronquillo asked Johnson to help him with the transition to running the court system which, by then, had already been underway for four months.
For the last two months of Johnson’s tenure, Ronquillo assigned Johnson to hear cases every day at the downtown branch of the court, but records of judicial hearings show Johnson appeared on the bench on only a handful of days in May.
In fact, when Johnson showed up in court on May 14, lawyers and others in the courtroom seemed surprised, according to a recording of the session.
“Yeah, I thought I’d just pop in and see what’s going on,” said Johnson, according to the recording.
On at least two occasions he was in court, Johnson heard motions to suppress evidence, but left the cases hanging until the litigants complained that the decision was taking so long. In one of the cases, Johnson finally filed a hand-scrawled decision July 11 siding with the defendant. But prosecutors have argued that it should be disregarded because it came after Johnson retired.
Johnson’s long run-up to retirement proved profitable, allowing him to collect $80,504 in salary for the first six months of the year, according to the comptroller.
In addition, he received $40,200 in payments for unused vacation and sick time.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to Johnson was the increase in his pension from receiving two pay raises totaling $30,000. Under the pension rules, a judge receives 75 percent of his highest salary — $159,694, in Johnson’s case — which would entitle him to a maximum benefit of $119,771. Had he retired before the raises, Johnson would be eligible for only $101,343.
But Johnson agreed to take a smaller amount in his pension, $97,865 a year, so that his wife could continue to receive it after his death.
Johnson is not the only judge to step down with an increased pension in the wake of the pay raises — 31 filed for retirement this year, including 11 in July alone. But Johnson’s work record during the past six months before the pay increases, make his case more controversial.
Globe correspondent Jasper Craven contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@