The first of four former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges to face punishment for lying about systemic corruption at the court was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in federal prison - a decision that could signal the others are also likely to get time behind bars.
Robert Mulgrew, 57, told U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel he never set out to mislead federal investigators or the grand jury investigating whether judges routinely fixed tickets for friends and political allies.
But Stengel characterized the ex-judge's perjury conviction just a "capstone on a 4½-year judicial career marked by regular and willing participation in a pervasive system of corruption."
"This case is about more than one lie before a grand jury," Stengel said. "I credit the prosecutors and the FBI for doing what the city and commonwealth could not do, which was to open the doors and windows of this traffic court."
Stengel's harsh words Wednesday on the long-standing practice at Traffic Court of granting breaks to people with the right connections seemed to settle several lingering questions on how he viewed the case and what punishment he felt Mulgrew and the others deserved.
In July, a jury convicted Mulgrew along with Judges Thomasine Tynes, Michael Lowry, and Willie Singletary on counts of perjury before the grand jury or lying to the FBI but acquitted them of more substantive conspiracy and fraud charges tied to the ticket-fixing scheme.
Several jurors later explained that they had little doubt that the judges routinely passed requests for "consideration" between their chambers. But they said they felt those actions constituted more of an ethical failure than a crime since prosecutors presented no evidence that any of the judges had accepted bribes in exchange for favorable treatment.
Still, prosecutors have urged Stengel to consider those favors in doling out punishment, arguing that the judges' conduct "destroyed an entire court system and brought disgrace to the legal profession."
State lawmakers shut down the Traffic Court following last year's federal indictment, and have since replaced it with a new system under Municipal Court.
During Wednesday's hearing, Mulgrew's lawyer, Angela Halim, pushed back against efforts to blame her client for Traffic Court's dismantling. Mulgrew, she said, didn't create the consideration system; he was merely inducted into it.
"Mr. Mulgrew didn't destroy Traffic Court. The other judges still to be sentenced didn't destroy Traffic Court," she said. "This was a system that has been going on for decades - 30-plus years - created by people who were long gone by the time he took the bench."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek balked: "To suggest that that toilet existed for 30 years and that he deserves credit because he didn't create it is absurd," he said.
If anything, Halim replied, Mulgrew was generous to a fault - both in his personal life and in court, where, she said, he granted everyone - not just political allies - a break.
A former longshoreman who rose through the ranks of the South Philadelphia Democratic machine, Mulgrew worked as an aide to former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo before winning election to Traffic Court in 2007.
At home, he devoted countless hours to his family and his Pennsport neighborhood, where neighbors described him as a frequent presence seen cleaning up vacant lots, coaching youth sports, and collecting food for needy families. Among those who wrote letters to Stengel on his behalf were City Councilmen James Kenney, William Greenlee, and Mark Squilla as well as former State Rep. James Tayoun.
But even Mulgrew's record of volunteering in his community came with a significant caveat, prosecutors were quick to point out. He was sentenced in August to 30 months in prison after admitting to skimming tens of thousands of dollars from state grants given to improve a park in his neighborhood.
Stengel ordered Wednesday that Mulgrew's new sentence be tacked on to his punishment in the other case, effectively putting Mulgrew behind bars for four years.
"It strikes me as very, very sad that a hardworking community-minded man that is dedicated to his family has been brought to this point," Stengel said. "But public confidence in our courts is paramount . . . to our judiciary."
Stengel is scheduled to sentence Tynes on Thursday. Lowry and Singletary are expected to face punishment early next year.