Feds: Judge reigned over Lower Southampton through bribery, extortion, sway with township board
From the chambers of his district courtroom, Lower Southampton Judge John Waltman routinely shook down businessmen looking to land government contracts and boasted of having the town's Republican-led board of supervisors under his thumb, investigators allege. When more subtlety was required, prosecutors say, Waltman met in office park parking lots to accept duffel bags stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash.
In the portrait painted by federal prosecutors, Judge John Waltman ran Lower Southampton Township like a fiefdom.
From the chambers of his district courtroom just over the town line in Feasterville, he routinely shook down businessmen looking to land government contracts, and boasted of having the Republican-led Board of Supervisors under his thumb, investigators allege. When more subtlety was required, prosecutors say, Waltman met in office park parking lots to accept duffel bags stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash.
But on Thursday, amid a long-running federal probe that has roiled the working-class Bucks County town of 19,000 and effectively ended Waltman's six-year judicial career, the judge's confidence appeared shaken as he sat in a hallway outside a federal courtroom in Philadelphia.
Head bowed, shoulders slumped, hands clenched in his lap, Waltman waited to enter his "not guilty" plea to charges including conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, and fraud — the result of a superseding indictment that vastly widened a corruption case against him and two other local officials painted as his henchmen.
Waltman, 60, declined to comment on the allegations afterward, as did his lawyer, Louis Busico, who said only that the judge maintained his innocence.
Federal authorities first showed their hand against Waltman, former Lower Southampton public safety director Robert P. Hoopes, and Deputy Constable Bernard T. Rafferty one year ago, charging them in a money-laundering scheme involving $400,000 cash that undercover agents portrayed as proceeds from various drug smuggling, health-care fraud, and bank fraud schemes.
But the 46-page superseding indictment unsealed earlier this month deepened the allegations against the three officials and implicated a host of uncharged others in the alleged misdeeds.
In all, prosecutors say, Waltman, Hoopes, and Rafferty shook down five businessmen seeking everything from engineering and towing work to help with clearing zoning hurdles for commercial developers between summer 2014 and December 2016.
"It's trickle-down economics," Waltman allegedly said in a text message exchange with one businessman he was trying to extort. "Everybody will be happy."
Lower Southampton's former solicitor, Michael Savona, helped negotiate a kickback to Waltman in 2016 from a business seeking to build a billboard in a city park, the filings allege. Prosecutors maintain he also ferried the judge's wishes to the township board.
Savona, who is not charged, has said through his lawyer that he is cooperating with the investigation. He resigned earlier this month as township solicitor and from his Doylestown-based law firm, Eastburn & Gray, also giving up solicitor posts in Warminster, New Britain Borough, Conshohocken, Lower Gwynedd, and Warminster.
The Lower Southampton Board of Supervisors, as Waltman described it in conversations quoted in the indictment, served as a simple "rubber stamp" to any deals he negotiated with hopeful contractors.
That level of influence, authorities claim, was built through his long involvement in Republican politics in the township. He led Lower Southampton's Republican committee for many years and served as an elected constable for two decades before he was appointed to the bench in 2010, taking a job previously held by his sister, Susan McEwen. She was forced to retire in a scandal that year over allegations that she had altered records in a case involving her grandson.
But the new charges against Waltman, Hoopes, and Rafferty have posed problems for local leaders who — although not charged alongside the judge or individually accused of wrongdoing — are painted in an unflattering light in court filings.
Township Manager John McMenamin and Supervisors Chairman Keith Wesley have forcefully denied that the board had any knowledge of alleged wrongdoing by Waltman, Hoopes, and Rafferty, and suggested the men lied about their ability to steer board decisions on township contracts to extort more money from their victims.
"These guys were completely rogue," Wesley told the Bucks County Courier Times after a township meeting this month.
To dispel any whiff of corruption, the township has acted swiftly, firing Hoopes shortly after he first was charged in December 2016.
Rafferty also was relieved of his duties, and state judicial authorities suspended Waltman and — at the request of Bucks County officials — abolished the post he once held.
And yet, in dozens of text message exchanges from the judge quoted in the latest indictment, Waltman spoke confidently about his ability to control the board's votes — for the right price.
He often used Hoopes — a former police officer and lawyer who as public safety director oversaw Lower Southampton's 29-officer police force, two fire departments, and rescue squad — as his front man in dealing with contractors, the indictment alleges.
It was Hoopes who allegedly opened negotiations last year with Robert DeGoria, a vice president for sales at Malvern-based Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, when he sought to land rights to build a digital billboard in Lower Southampton's Russell Elliott Memorial Park.
Over two months, DeGoria argued with the public safety director and eventually with Waltman and Savona over how much it would take for the judge to throw his weight behind the project, prosecutors say.
"Try to do more than three [thousand]," Waltman told DeGoria in one text message exchange quoted in the indictment. "Try to do it around probably four or five and it's a done deal."
But as negotiations dragged on, the sum Waltman allegedly demanded rose as high as $15,000 — money he intended to hide by having it paid into a consulting firm owned by Rafferty.
The judge and his surrogates purportedly suggested that DeGoria take their cut out of whatever money he was proposing to pay the township for the billboard lease — funds that the board already had earmarked for improvements to municipal parks.
It remains unclear whether DeGoria — who is not charged — ever paid Waltman the alleged bribe. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Hoopes, 70, of Doylestown, and Rafferty, 62, of Lower Southampton, have denied the charges. They, along with Waltman, are scheduled for trial in April.