Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ordinary drivers are disgusted by report on ticket-fixing in Philadelphia

John Modugno showed up at Philadelphia Traffic Court that hot summer day to fight his $294.50 ticket for driving the wrong way and making an illegal turn. Judge H. Warren Hogeland found him guilty.

Judge Seamus McCaffery goes over the night's paperwork with his wife, Lisa Rapaport, who was standing in for court clerk because the usual clerk was sick.
Judge Seamus McCaffery goes over the night's paperwork with his wife, Lisa Rapaport, who was standing in for court clerk because the usual clerk was sick.Read moreINQ TARVER

John Modugno showed up at Philadelphia Traffic Court that hot summer day to fight his $294.50 ticket for driving the wrong way and making an illegal turn. Judge H. Warren Hogeland found him guilty.

Kurt Clements made his case that day, too. Hogeland's verdict - guilty of making an improper turn, a $126.50 fine.

The same day, Hogeland also convicted Orion Green of driving his truck with expired inspection and emissions stickers. Green is still paying off his hefty fine.

But Lise Rapaport made out OK.

On July 16, 2010, Hogeland acquitted her of driving the wrong way on Market Street in Center City.

Rapaport is the wife of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery. In a report alleging widespread ticket-fixing at Traffic Court, investigators marshaled evidence to suggest that McCaffery intervened so that his wife was given "special consideration."

McCaffery and Hogeland deny that.

Philadelphians were shocked, just shocked, to discover that tickets were being fixed at Traffic Court, while some Supreme Court justices reportedly seemed more upset that the report was released than troubled by its contents.

And in a cynical town, the allegations also hardly stunned ordinary folks who sought justice from Hogeland on that July day. But they said they were still troubled and frustrated that the system did not work the same for all.

"It's not fair," said Modugno, 38, one of several people interviewed by The Inquirer after the newspaper used court records to identify drivers whose tickets were handled by Hogeland that day.

"It's just unfair that somebody sitting next to me could get a lesser charge because they know somebody," Modugno said.

"Is it fair? No," Clements, 55, said. "Just because you know somebody, to get out of the ticket? Nope. But I'm sure it happens all the time."

"That's how the world goes - it's about who you know, sometimes," Green, 40, said. "If you've got connections into City Hall or the judicial system, you can get off on certain things."

In his Traffic Court report, investigator William G. Chadwick quoted almost two dozen court staffers and four judges, including Hogeland, as saying ticket-fixing was endemic within the walls of the fortresslike Traffic Court building at Eighth and Spring Garden Streets.

Chadwick conducted his investigation at the urging of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. The chief justice launched the probe after news broke last year that the FBI had raided the place.

In the report's most quoted phrase, Chadwick said Traffic Court had "two tracks of justice" - one for the public and another for the politically connected.

Precisely why Lise Rapaport was acquitted remains a matter of controversy. But it seems clear that the court, at a minimum, rolled out a warm welcome for her and her husband, Justice McCaffery.

According to Chadwick's investigation, a top court administrator met Rapaport at the entrance to the court on the day of her case. Then, McCaffery acknowledged, the administrator came outside and chatted with the high court justice, who had dropped his wife off and was waiting outside in a car.

The hearing addressed the ticket given Rapaport after a police officer pulled her over in her silver Toyota Highlander SVU at 7 p.m. the previous May 14.

She was stopped not far from the judicial office she shares with her husband in one of the Centre Square towers at 15th and Market.

With an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a Penn law degree, Rapaport has been her husband's aide since he became an appellate judge nine years ago.

As court employees, McCaffery and Rapaport earn a combined annual total of $271,000 - $195,309 for McCaffery, $75,395 for Rapoport. (Their husband-and-wife setup is not unique. Castille's wife is his chief deputy.)

The ticket given Rapaport carried a $119.50 charge but no points. Like most people hit with moving violations, she appealed to Traffic Court.

Neither Rapaport nor McCaffery responded to requests for interviews for this article. In a previous interview, the justice did not dispute that his wife had driven the wrong way, but he said she had not seen the one-way sign amid heavy rain.

According to Chadwick's report, McCaffery acknowledged that he had called William Hird, then Traffic Court's director of operations, before his wife's hearing.

On the hearing day, Hird advised his colleagues that he was "helping Justice McCaffery out with something in front of a judge," according to the Chadwick report.

Hird said that McCaffery's wife "had a little issue" and that he had gone to meet her at the entrance, the report said.

And McCaffery acknowledged that he had summoned Hird by sending him a cellphone text message when he and his wife arrived.

Chadwick said that Hird had served since 2008 as a "clearinghouse" for bids to fix tickets, fielding the requests and farming them out to the assigned judge.

Hird quit his job in late 2011, shortly after the FBI seized computers and paperwork from his Traffic Court office. Hird would not talk to Chadwick and could not be reached by The Inquirer.

McCaffery has said he had no knowledge of Hird's alleged role as a fixer. He said he merely knew him from meeting him at campaign events.

The justice said he had not tried to fix his wife's ticket, but to spare Traffic Court potential embarrassment.

Since he was a well-known Philadelphia political figure, McCaffery said, he had called Hird to urge that a judge from outside Philadelphia be assigned her case. This might lessen any thought that his wife got special treatment, McCaffery said.

With an out-of-county judge, McCaffery told The Inquirer, "no one could be compromised."

"Obviously, I didn't want the case fixed," he said.

Hogeland, in a previous interview with The Inquirer, denied being the judge who acquitted Rapaport - though he apparently signed the adjudication on the ticket and is listed as the case's judge in Traffic Court records. Through his lawyer, Hogeland declined comment for this article.

Stenographers do not document Traffic Court hearings. Nor are the hearings taped.

A former district justice in Bucks County, Hogeland, 75, served as an appointed senior judge in Philadelphia Traffic Court until earlier this year. He could no longer hear cases after Castille declined to recertify him.

While denying that he had done anything improper with Rapaport's ticket, Hogeland admitted to Chadwick's team that he had fixed other tickets - and that he had fielded requests to do so directly from four other judges.

On July 16, 2010, Hogeland was by far the busiest of the three judges sitting that day in Traffic Court. In all, he disposed of 154 cases, according to case-by-case records obtained by The Inquirer.

By the end of the day, Hogeland had found 110 people guilty. He acquitted the rest.

One of those convicted was Modugno. As it happened, he was trying to fight a ticket given him on May 14, 2010 - the day Rapaport was ticketed.

Like her, Modugno was pulled over for driving the wrong way.

An officer who stopped him at 1:33 a.m. on Fourth Street in South Philadelphia also said he had made an improper turn.

Modugno said he never thought of trying to get help to fix his ticket. "I didn't have anybody," he said.

"It's very angering because it's just not fair."

Another driver convicted that day was Clements, of Springfield in Delaware County. He called Traffic Court a "MAC machine for the city."

Clements said the system was tilted against those without connections. "It's all in who you know," he said.

That said, Clements said he had no ire at those who pulled strings.

"I'm sure there are people who get off because of who they know. Good for them."

Samba Diakite, 52, of Media, left Hogeland's drab courtroom owing $126.50 for driving with an expired emissions sticker. He, too, said he had no one to call.

"I paid that fine. I don't know anybody important who can drop it for me," Diakite said. "That's not right. They should treat everybody the same."