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Amid probes, Traffic Court gets a new top judge

Declaring that every defendant in Philadelphia Traffic Court is entitled to a fair hearing, "not just the politically connected," Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille announced a new leader Monday for the judicial body that handles 170,000 cases a year.

Declaring that every defendant in Philadelphia Traffic Court is entitled to a fair hearing, "not just the politically connected," Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille announced a new leader Monday for the judicial body that handles 170,000 cases a year.

The tough critique came as the Supreme Court removed Traffic Court's administrative judge, Michael J. Sullivan, and replaced him with a Common Pleas Court judge who is a former federal prosecutor. Castille called the move "unprecedented."

While the FBI has been investigating Traffic Court, Castille said the high court's own internal probe found Traffic Court judges regularly accepting requests for favorable decisions from the "politically connected."

The practice has become institutionalized in court operations, Castille said, and is a violation of the state Code of Judicial Conduct. He said there was an "ingrained culture of adjusting these tickets and not giving the city or citizens a fair shake."

The result was a loss of revenue for the city and state, Castille said, from traffic tickets "not adjudicated properly."

Sullivan's attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., called the action against the elected judge "both surprising and disappointing."

"Judge Sullivan has done nothing wrong," Hockeimer said, adding that he wanted to see the report submitted to the Supreme Court by an outside consultant, Chadwick Associates.

"We certainly hope that this move is not being driven by politics or some other agenda," Hockeimer said.

Sullivan was appointed to the administrative post this year by the Supreme Court, but soon thereafter the FBI raided his home and office. That raid prompted a review of the court's operation and the action Monday, approved by the seven Supreme Court justices, Castille said.

Sullivan will continue to serve as a judge but will not run the court. He was first elected in 2005 to a six-year term, and was reelected this year. The post does not require any legal education, and pays about $86,500 a year.

Traffic Court will now be run by Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, who as a federal prosecutor played a key role in a 1980s judicial corruption probe.

Glazer and Castille said they had to change a "culture" inside Traffic Court that has made it routine to accept requests for special treatment from "political sources."

"It's not going to be done overnight," Glazer said.

"It's a generational issue here; this has been building up for who knows how many years," Glazer said. He may hire an "ethics officer," but added, "an ethics officer is no help if people are not going to follow the rules."

"We know there were [outsider] communications with the judges," Castille said. "Sometimes through staff members, sometimes through external parties" not on the court staff.

The two judges did not know if citations were quashed or fines reduced in exchange for cash.

The FBI has executed search warrants for the homes and office computers of Sullivan, former court administrative officer William T. Hird Sr. and former Traffic Court Judge Fortunato Perri Sr., according to Castille. Taverns run by Sullivan and Hird have also been searched.

The FBI has acknowledged that agents raided Traffic Court offices in September, and Monday declined to comment further.

Outside the Traffic Court building on Spring Garden Street, defendants expressed no surprise at the prospect that the politically connected were exercising influence.

"I'm pretty sure they have their way. They have the connections," said James Spencer of West Philadelphia. Spencer said he was forced to pay a ticket for failing to stop at a stop sign, a violation he said he didn't commit. "I just feel that I was treated unfairly. I stopped," he said.

Chantele Carter of Northeast Philadelphia joked about the alleged ticket-fixing. "I think it's great - if they are helping me," she said. "But it's not fair."

Ron Wolf, an entertainer from Danville, Va., said he paid "a couple thousand" for violations that began with failing to stop at a stop sign in West Philadelphia. Wolf said he didn't think he was guilty but paid his bill at Traffic Court to avoid a prolonged fight.

Political sources said the FBI has periodically probed Traffic Court's handling of its caseload, which ranges from adjudicating suspensions to citations for overweight trucks. The sources said federal agents were interested only in whether money changed hands in return for a favorable outcome, not whether the politically connected were granted "favors."

A favorable ruling by a judge, however, can save individuals and companies from paying hundreds or thousands of dollars more in fines or insurance premiums.

A key factor in removing Sullivan was to assure Philadelphians that cases "will be adjudicated fairly based on the evidence presented in court, rather than by judges in the back room," Castille said

"Everyone has the opportunity for a fair hearing, and not just the politically connected," Castille said.

The court has eight judicial seats, seven for judges who hear cases and an eighth for one who handles administrative matters.

None of the other Traffic Court judges responded to requests for comment. A message was left for Hird at the Cannonball Tavern in Bridesburg, which he operates with his son. Hird retired from his $75,000-a-year job last month.

Sullivan is to be sworn in for a second term next month. In 2005, when he was elected to his first term, campaign contributions records show that his largest contributor was Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which contributed $70,000. Sullivan has also received lesser contributions from other building trades unions.

It was not clear what percentage of the court's cases may have been the subject of political "requests," but one estimate put it at 5 percent to 10 percent.

Traffic Court judges have made news on other occasions in recent years.

In 2009, Judge Willie Singletary was given a reprimand and probation by the state Court of Judicial Discipline for illegally collecting campaign donations in 2007 and suggesting at a motorcycle rally that those who gave money would get favorable treatment in his court. Singletary was elected to a six-year term.

In August 2010, agents executed a search warrant at the home of Traffic Court Judge Robert Mulgrew as part of an investigation involving community organizations and political campaign expenses in South Philadelphia. No charges were filed. Mulgrew remains on the bench.