John Waltman was a judge, but he acted like a king in his hometown, a southwestern gateway to Bucks County and a working-class suburb rubbing elbows with the city.
“This is Lower Southampton,” he bragged during a conversation about extorting a local business owner into selling his property. “I know everything there is to know.”
It was an arrogance born of years of political dominance, steeled by backroom deals and barroom meetings. And it was shattered in 2016, when Waltman and two of his lieutenants, township Public Safety Director Robert Hoopes and Constable Bernard Rafferty, were indicted on federal corruption charges. They were accused of shaking down business owners seeking township contracts and laundering money they believed was from illegal drug sales.
The feds also nabbed Lower Southampton’s former solicitor, Michael Savona, for lying to the FBI about the way the men ran the township. Savona, admitting his guilt in court, said Waltman’s personality, his convincing, manipulative nature, made him go against his better judgment.
Prosecutors likened Waltman and his associates to an organized crime family. They abused the power given to them by voters, investigators said, in schemes ranging from fixing a traffic ticket to extorting bribes from vendors.
The criminal charges were long in the making: Waltman and the others fell in with a would-be money launderer who was actually an undercover IRS agent. He offered the three public officials a cut of $400,000 in cash, stuffed in duffel bags, that they laundered through a bogus consulting company.
And that was only part of their scheme. The federal indictment against Waltman and his colleagues portrayed the men as being blinded by greed, using their authority to line their pockets, even as they tended to the public’s business.
Wiretaps captured shockingly open — even jocular — conversations about the schemes, with Waltman referring to the township supervisors as his “rubber stamp.”
The crimes were brazen — and breathtaking in scope. And in the end, faced with evidence investigators gathered over a year, three of the most powerful men in Lower Southampton admitted their guilt, their fiefdom toppled, their influence spent.
The disgraced judge, 61, reported to federal prison Thursday to begin a 6½ year sentence that critics say was too lenient. The two others are expected to follow later this summer.
At sentencing, Waltman, Hoopes, and Rafferty expressed regret to the citizens whose trust they betrayed. None agreed to be interviewed for this article.
But once they’re assigned their prisoner numbers and locked into their cells, the township will still struggle to mend its battered reputation. Residents are furious, reeling from the betrayal of their town. And they’re keeping close watch.
Current township officials insist that Lower Southampton is moving beyond the scandal, that the old regime is felled. But they recognize that there is rebuilding to do.
The president of the township supervisors, Ray Weldie, fumed at the conduct laid out in the court filings.
“In one way, I’m angry at the people who took advantage of the residents who live here,” he said recently. "They were lulled to sleep and fleeced by people they thought they could trust.
“But on the other hand, I’m happy that the opportunity arose for people to come in and fix this,” he added. “If this regime was still running things, I couldn’t run for dogcatcher.”
Weldie, a former police officer and current fifth-grade teacher, jumped into politics after the arrests, running for supervisor in 2017. A lifelong township resident, Weldie wasn’t completely surprised by the criminal charges. He knows his history.
Fifty years ago, Waltman’s father, Elmer, was a Republican kingmaker. His son had high aspirations, rising from a security guard at the Bucks County Mall to local constable. He joined the township’s Republican committee and later served as its longtime chairman. In 2010, he took over the local district court after his sister, Susan McEwen, resigned in disgrace during a state misconduct investigation.
“There were always whispers, rumors of allegations of things going on, none of it was ever substantiated or corroborated in ways I was aware of,” Weldie said. “I thought maybe there was some influence-peddling going on. But money laundering? That was a shock.”
For most of his life, Weldie hated politics. But he said he felt a need to “right the ship.”
“Before this happened, the township meetings were low-key, and the day-to-day operations were very smooth," he said. “It seemed like everyone had faith and confidence in the people running the township.
“It blew up in everyone’s face, and I’d like to get it back to that, where everyone trusts the people they’ve elected,” he added.
Since the indictments, there’s been a shuffling of personnel: A new township manager, a new finance director, a new zoning officer set to begin her work this summer.
Even outside the township offices, there’s been turnover. The local Republican committee has replaced more than half of its committeemen, according to GOP chairman Nick Bordner, one of the new appointments.
“To get over this idea that our entire township is corrupt, the faith in the integrity in the township had to be restored,” Weldie said. “And the only way to do that is to put in people the public trusts.”
It will be a significant undertaking. During his years of influence, Waltman secured jobs for dozens of people, employees as wide-ranging as public works landscapers to township supervisors.
For their part, the three men implicated in these schemes had little to say.
Hoopes hung up on a reporter.
Rafferty said he had “nothing to add” beyond his comments at his sentencing, when he said Waltman cajoled him into aiding the scheme under threat of losing his job.
And Waltman, speaking through his lawyer, Louis Busico, said only that he looks forward to completing his prison sentence.
“Everyone has their problems, but this was a festering wound for a long time," said Mike Morris, a former member of the Neshaminy School Board and an early, consistent critic of Waltman’s.
“It’s hard when so many people, so many good people, get involved,” he said. “You do a favor for a friend of a friend, and suddenly you’re connected to this enterprise.”
During public meetings, Morris often referred to Waltman as “crooked," and accused him of trying to intimidate him. In an unusual move, a constable interrupted a 2016 school board meeting to serve Morris papers from Waltman’s personal lawyer, threatening a defamation suit.
Four months later, Waltman was indicted.
“I’ve always let my opinion be known,” Morris said. “And I went from the craziest guy in the world — ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about’ — to him being indicted.”
News of the criminal charges rocked the Bucks County township.
Police Chief John “Ted” Krimmel worked quickly after getting that phone call from the FBI in December 2016.
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘Corruption will not be tolerated by me going forward,’” Krimmel said. “We knew something was up when these guys were here, but we couldn’t put our fingers on it. I was suspicious, to say the least.”
Initially named to lead the department on an interim basis after Hoopes’ removal, Krimmel began requiring his officers to wear body cameras, introduced anti-corruption policies, and has been working to get the department accredited by the state, a step he hopes will boost residents’ confidence.
"I don’t care what town it is in the county, there are always rumors of political shenanigans,” Krimmel said. "But from the beginning, something wasn’t right here. My gut told me something was wrong with the situation.”
Marge McCurdy long held the same suspicions. She sat in sparsely attended township meetings that ballooned into standing-room-only crowds once the criminal investigation came to light. And she watched as fed-up residents threw full pizza boxes and crumpled dollar bills at the supervisors, sarcastically saying the board is known for “taking bribes.”
If there’s an upside to this mess, to having the township she’s spent 50 years in be thrust under a microscope, McCurdy said, it’s that renewed sense of public interest.
“We need a clean slate, completely, from the top down,” she said in a recent interview. “And if you can’t get new blood in there, we need people to keep a close watch, every meeting, to constantly be there."
In November’s municipal election, she believes, the deeply red township might shift.
“I’m a Republican. I’m pro-Trump 2020, the whole nine yards,” McCurdy said. "But I can’t stand sitting here, looking at a full Republican board, and not knowing who’s corrupt and who’s not.