File this under “Only in Philadelphia.” Three former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges, who all went to prison for lying to federal investigators, are back home. And they’re running for seats on City Council.
Need a minute? Let it sink in. We’ll wait.
OK, let’s suss this out.
Traffic Court was a stupendously corrupt judicial body, a reliable source of scandal for decades before the feds in 2013 indicted nine judges, a former court official, and two business owners in a ticket-fixing case.
How corrupt? The Pennsylvania General Assembly acted in a bipartisan fashion to shut it down. And voters in 2016 approved a referendum question to abolish Traffic Court. The vote was 60 percent to 40 percent statewide — higher in Philly.
Five defendants pleaded guilty. The rest went to trial in 2014. All were acquitted on the ticket-fixing charges, but four were convicted of lying to federal investigators.
Three of them — Thomasine Tynes, Willie Singletary, and Mike Lowry — are now circulating nomination petitions for the May 21 Democratic ballot for City Council.
Tynes, who was Traffic Court’s president judge, was sentenced to 23 months in prison. She also pleaded guilty in an unrelated state case after she was caught in a sting, accepting a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet from a lobbyist working under cover for prosecutors.
Article 2, Section 7 of the Pennsylvania Constitution says people “convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury, or other infamous crimes” are ineligible to hold “any office of trust or profit" in the state.
That would seem to exclude the former judges as candidates. Not so fast, say Tynes and Singletary. Both claim that constitutional clause applies only to state offices, not city posts. (History has not seen it that way.)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the convictions for Tynes, Singletary, and Lowry six weeks ago. That ruling also said Singletary, who served 20 months in prison, should be resentenced. That’s set for March 13.
Tynes says she has encountered only positive receptions from voters while circulating petitions for an at-large Council seat. “Whether that’s good or bad, a lot of people know me," she said.
Singletary, who last year ran a write-in campaign for a U.S. House seat, is also seeking an at-large seat, and counting on name recognition. “I’m Willy from Philly,” he said. “People know my name.”
Lowry, circulating petitions in Council’s 6th District, was less forthcoming. “I’m not going to be making any comments,” said the former judge, who was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
The 6th District is represented by Councilman Bobby Henon, who was indicted four weeks ago on federal charges along with John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, leader of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and six other union officials.
Speaking of Local 98 …
Consider this curious inversion of the Philadelphia political model: Local 98 has been for two decades a gargantuan presence in the world of campaign contributions. An Inquirer analysis shows the union collected just under $41 million from 2002 to 2018, mostly from its members, for political donations.
Candidates once thought gaining Local 98′s support might persuade others to donate to their campaigns.
But some candidates are less than thrilled these days about having the union’s money turning up in their campaign finance reports.
The Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, also led by Dougherty, is not having it. That group’s union leaders met Monday and agreed to shut out any candidate that spurns Local 98′s support.
Ryan Boyer, business manager for the Laborers District Council, said he hopes all AFL-CIO locals do the same. Anthony Gallagher, business manager for Steamfitters Local 430, agreed.
“When people run from one of us, they run from all of us,” Gallagher said. “We all have a common belief that we stick together. That’s what we do in the building trades.”
And the Oscar for political head-fakes goes to …
The fake-out of the week award goes to State Rep. Jared Solomon, who had Philadelphia’s political class and many local reporters convinced he would challenge Henon in the Democratic primary.
Solomon summoned reporters to the City Hall courtyard Thursday with a promise to “make remarks” about the 6th District. There, he gave voice to one of the indictment’s saltiest passages, quoting Henon caught on an FBI wiretap telling Dougherty: "I don’t give a [expletive] about anybody other than Johnny Doc and me.”
About a dozen people gathered in the chilly wind, including Local 98 consultant Frank Keel and mayoral hopeful Alan Butkovitz.
And then? Well, not much. Solomon called for Henon to resign, claiming the 6th District would be better served by “an empty chair” than a “corrupt councilman.”
Solomon demurred on running for the office, citing progress legislators from the city are making on the issue of poverty.
Keel had a question. He asked if Solomon would return money he received from Local 98.
Solomon called that a “great question” before talking a while about how that money comes from the union’s members, noting that Local 98 gave him $5,000 in 2015, and finally wrapping up with a sturdy, “I’ll happily consider that.”