Federal prosecutors and FBI agents have subpoenaed financial information from five Philadelphia judges, sought campaign-donation records, and interviewed judges and political figures as part of a wide-ranging investigation over the last year, The Inquirer has learned.
Court officials and lawyers said they were unsure of the investigation's focus. Two people said the FBI questioned them about what they called possible "fixing cases." A third said agents asked about "pay-to-play," the long-standing practice of campaign donors getting favors from public officials.
In an interview, Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr. said prosecutors subpoenaed his campaign-finance filings in August.
"My understanding is there's certainly an investigation," William Brennan, Waters' lawyer, said. "My understanding further is that agents have spoken to a number of [Philadelphia court] employees, including judges and administrators. The focus, frankly, is unclear to me at this point."
Waters, a Democrat elected to the bench in 2009, said the subpoena sought his campaign-finance data going back to 2006, when he began campaigning for a judgeship. He, too, said he did not know where the FBI was headed, but "it's very unsettling."
Earlier this year, people familiar with the investigation say, prosecutors subpoenaed Waters' annual financial disclosures, as well as those of Municipal Court Judges Joseph O'Neill, Dawn A. Segal, and Craig M. Washington, and Common Pleas Court Judge Angeles Roca. The disclosures require judges to list sources of outside income and gifts.
Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Friday, "We can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of an investigation."
In an e-mail, Segal, elected to the bench in 2009, said she was unaware that her financial forms had been subpoenaed. She said FBI agents had asked her once about a 2011 case in which she had played a minor role.
Efforts to contact O'Neill for comment were unsuccessful.
Roca, who hears Family Court cases, declined comment Friday except to say that she was not being evasive and that she, too, was unaware her records had been sought. "I have nothing to hide," she said. "This is the first time I'm hearing of it."
Through an aide, Washington, who handles landlord-tenant cases, also declined to comment.
Brennan, speaking for Waters, said the judge had amassed a respected record running Bench Warrant Court, a system that has slashed the fugitive rate.
"The fact that there is a federal investigation should not infer any wrongdoing on the part of Judge Waters," the lawyer said. "The federal government routinely conducts investigations, and sometimes they lead to further activity, and sometimes they don't."
The subpoenas are the latest sign of the aggressive bent federal authorities have taken in recent years regarding Philadelphia judges.
As The Inquirer has previously reported, those authorities have launched an inquiry into state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a former Municipal Court administrative judge, digging into his role in local cases. He has denied any wrongdoing. Separately, the U.S. Attorney's Office has brought charges against nine current and former Traffic Court judges, drawing on 18 months of wiretap evidence.
In a statement Friday, Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield said, "While it would be inappropriate for me to comment on particular matters, this court is committed to cooperating fully with any investigation."
A common thread in the latest probe - at least for a time - was a politically active Kensington businessman and convicted tax evader named Samuel G. Kuttab.
In interviews, numerous sources said FBI agents had spent time last year digging into how the courts decided a low-profile 2011 lawsuit involving Kuttab and a series of political dinners he helped organize.
It's unclear whether federal authorities are still examining those subjects or have moved on.
Kuttab, 53, is a Zeliglike character who was released from federal prison in 2005 after serving 22 months for his family's scheme to evade $1.2 million in taxes. Before his conviction, he ran a 300-employee security-guard firm that won city contracts; he was also an active fund-raiser for city Democratic candidates.
Several sources said the FBI had asked about the 2011 case in which a Kuttab business was sued by a fire-alarm company over a $2,700 debt. In that case, Judge O'Neill ruled in Kuttab's favor.
Interviewed Thursday, Kuttab said the FBI had also questioned participants in a series of monthly dinners of Democratic city officeholders and others.
Kuttab said that among those with him at one or more of the dinners were Waters; City Controller Alan Butkovitz; Sheriff Jewell Williams; Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon; former Controller Joseph Vignola; City Councilman Bill Green; and Tomas Sanchez, husband of Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez.
Quiñones-Sanchez said that, more than a year ago, the FBI interviewed her husband and asked whether the dinners involved "pay-to-play kind of stuff." She said her husband, who is traveling abroad, answered no.
She said that she, too, had attended a couple of the meals and that they were merely informal social events.
Butkowitz and Green said in separate interviews that they each had attended one such dinner and described them as routine stops on the political circuit. Both said the FBI had not contacted them. Williams, DeLeon, and Vignola did not return calls seeking comment.
Kuttab said he was left confounded and anxious by the FBI's recent interest in his actions. He said he was unsure whether he remained under scrutiny and wished the agents would question him.
After his 2002 guilty plea, Kuttab said he has vowed to his five daughters and son to go straight. "I learned my lesson," he said, interviewed in his Kensington grocery. "I'm trying to do the right thing."
The 2011 lawsuit that the FBI has scrutinized was brought by a Montgomery County firm, Houdini Lock & Safe Co.
In the suit, Houdini said it was owed $2,738 for monitoring fire alarms in a warehouse owned by the Kuttab family. Court records show the case originally was assigned to Judge Segal. The transcript shows that she set a new trial date after the Kuttabs' lawyer said he had just gotten the case an hour before and wasn't ready.
In her e-mail Friday, Segal said she had never met Kuttab. She also said the case had been randomly assigned to her.
"At that hearing, a party requested a continuance [delay], which I granted and listed the case before another judge for a trial," she wrote. "My involvement with the case began and ended with the continuance decision."
The lawyer for Kuttab in the case was Kevin Rowe, then a law clerk for Common Pleas Court Judge James Murray Lynn.
According to Kuttab, his daughter had been planning to argue the case without a lawyer - but had run into Judge Waters on the way to the hearing.
Waters then arranged for Rowe to represent the family, Kuttab said. Rowe didn't respond to a call seeking comment.
The trial took place six weeks later in front of O'Neill. This time, Kuttab appeared in court with Rowe.
At the hearing, an executive with Houdini put in as evidence a contract signed by one of Kuttab's brothers. Kuttab testified, "It's not our signature."
On Nov. 16, 2011, O'Neill ruled for Kuttab. The judge said the Houdini firm's evidence had failed to persuade him: "Judgment in favor of the defendant."
Later, Kuttab said, a lawyer from Houdini told him the firm would appeal to Common Pleas Court - so Kuttab settled. He said he had an employee take Houdini's lawyer $500 cash.
"Ultimately for me, with the settlement, I lost that case," Kuttab said.
The following year, the FBI began asking about the case. Kuttab said he was told agents moved from courtroom to courtroom, asking judges about him and the Houdini Lock case.
While Kuttab said many politicians now shun him because he is an ex-felon, he said his interest in the Democratic Party remains. "I love politics," he said.
That was why, he said, he took part in the dinners a year or so ago that included an array of city Democrats - and drew the FBI's interest.
Butkovitz, the city controller, said he attended one such gathering at a steak house on City Avenue where four large tables were pushed together to accommodate as many as 20 people.
He said he had attended mainly to have a word with Edgar "Sonny" Campbell Jr., a West Philadelphia ward leader.
Asked about the dinner Friday, Campbell declined comment.
Butkovitz said he was not thrilled to run into Kuttab at the steak house.
"I didn't feel like seeing him," the controller said. "I think he had been in trouble."