Nine current or former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were charged today with conspiracy and fraud after a three-year FBI probe into ticket-fixing in the beleaguered court.
A 77-count indictment, returned Tuesday but sealed until Thursday, said judges or their assistants routinely shredded documents, used code words and practiced "a well-understood conspiracy of silence" that turned the court into two systems: One where the average citizen paid for infractions, while connected offenders were found not guilty or saw their cases dismissed, costing the Commonwealth an untold amount.
"For years, even beyond the conspiracy charged, there existed a culture of ticket fixing at Traffic Court," the indictment said. "The ticket fixing was pervasive and frequent."
Charged were two of the court's three sitting judges, Michael Lowry and Michael Sullivan, as well as seven former judges.
Four - Fortunato Perri Sr., Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary and Thomasine Tynes - were elected by Philadelphia voters. The other three are former suburban district judges who were appointed for a stints in Philadelphia Traffic Court: Mark A. Bruno of a Chester County, H. Warren Hogeland of Bucks County, and Kenneth Miller of Delaware County.
Unlike those who were indicted Thursday, Hogeland, Miller and Perri were charged separately by informations. The process is typically reserved for defendants who intend to plead guilty.
Also indicted were Traffic Court administrator William Hird; and two local businessmen, Henry P. Alfano and Robert Moy. Alfano owned a towing service that won a no-bid contract from traffic court.
U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger said the system cheated taxpayers of revenue and completely undermined public confidence in the institution.
"Those who seek to game the system by refusing to follow the rules need to be held accountable by the rule of law they swore to uphold," he said in a statement.
All but one of the defendants named in the indictment appeared before a magistrate judge and were expected to be released under $20,000 bail.
"I'm so upset," said Tynes, as she left Magistrate Judge L. Felipe Restrepo's courtroom. "I don't know nothing really."
The others mostly deferred to their lawyers, who denied any wrongdoing and looked forward to their day in court.
"Judge Sullivan never asked for nor did he receive any bribe, kickback or anything of value in exchange for performing his duties as an elected traffic court judge," defense attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. said in a statement. "Judge Sullivan handled each case before him fairly and competently."
Singletary's lawyer, William J. Brennan, said he was pleased after such an exhaustive investigation to see that "the indictment does not allege that my client took one thin dime of graft or payola."
Still, the case in a single day decimated the bench and cast a cloud that stretched years. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts pledged support to keep the traffic court running.
"Philadelphia Traffic Court remains open and newly-assigned senior magisterial district judges from various counties have been appointed to hear cases," Justice J. Michael Eakin said in a statement.
As to suspending the judges, Jim Koval, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, said Thursday that he could not comment about the two Philadelphia judges' status. Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer, appointed to oversee and reform Traffic Court, said he has requested that Sullivan and Lowry be suspended, and has not scheduled them to hear cases.
In Chester County, the president judge issued an order barring Bruno from serving as a magistrate - or even entering his office.
The state Judicial Conduct Board, meanwhile, filed petitions to suspend without pay all the active judges until pending resolution of the federal case.
Kathleen D. Wilkinson, chairwoman of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association, called Thursday "a sad day for the justice system in Pennsylvania."
Wilkinson said the indictments "cast a shadow on the court that compromises the ability for justice to be dispensed fairly," and she called on the indicted justices to resign immediately.
"We respect the work done by Traffic Court Administrative Judge Gary S. Glazer to enact measures to restore integrity and public confidence in the operations of the court, and believe an overhaul of Traffic Court is needed so that justice is dispensed fairly and without favoritism," Wilkinson said.
For decades, traffic court has stirred controversy, seen as a scourge by drivers, a patronage mill by political observers, and ripe for corruption. Judges earn at least $85,000, win election only with the blessing of the local political parties and bosses. The court was twice before been the focus of federal probes.
The latest charges brought to light a probe that had been bubbling for at least three years, built on public raids and secret FBI wiretaps.
A preview emerged last fall, when a consultant commissioned by Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille concluded there was a pervasive culture of corruption in the court.
That report, prepared by former city prosecutor William G. Chadwick, cited eight former or current judges, and described Hird as the central coordinator for ticket-fixing, or, as the judges called it "consideration."
The indictment went further, spelling out in detail how friends, associates and ward leaders arranged to get cases dismissed or fines dropped.
In return, the judges allegedly got more than good will. According to the indictment, Perri accepted free auto services, towing, landscaping, and even a load of shrimp and crab cakes from Alfano, whose company, Century Motors, ran a towing service.
"I see Century on it, it's gold," Perri once told Alfano, according to the indictment. "When you call, I move, brother, believe me."
In February 2010, the indictment said, Alfano called on behalf of a truck driver who faced $442 in fines and court costs after being ticketed along I-95 for not clearing the snow and ice off his tractor-trailer. Twice the drive got notices that his license would be suspended.
"It will be alright, don't worry about it," Perri allegedly assured Alfano.
Two months later, the case landed before Sullivan. The driver didn't even attend the hearing, and was deemed not guilty, the indictment said.
Hird declined to comment but his lawyer, Greg Pagano, told reporters: "My client is a taxpaying, hardworking citizen who goes to work every day and who is being indicted essentially for doing his job."
Alfano is a former police officer who had a long-standing friendship with Perri, according to one of his lawyers. The suggestions of payoffs for ticket fixing was "a reach," said the lawyer, Jeffrey Miller.
Hird and Singletary are accused of lying to FBI agents, while Mulgrew, Tynes and Lowry are charged with perjury before the Grand Jury.
"You don't give out special favors, is that right?" a prosecutor asked Lowry before the grand jury in fall 2011, according to the indictment.
"No, I treat everybody the same," he replied.
Singletary resigned last year in an unrelated scandal, after a court staffer accused him of showing her a picture of his genitals on his cellphone.
Mulgrew was indicted in a separate federal corruption case, charged with defrauding an neighborhood nonprofit.
The Republican floor leader of the state Senate, Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, said the indictments boosted his resolve to pass legislation abolishing the court.
"They confirm my opinion that the Traffic Court is not an institution that has any reason to continue to exist," Pileggi told reporters in a conference call. "They accelerate the urgency of enacting the reforms that I proposed."