Justice: VIPs got their own judicial E-ZPass in Traffic Court

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan (FILE PHOTO / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: December 20, 2011

THERE ARE two very different ways to have a case heard in Philadelphia's Traffic Court, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille explained yesterday. Most drivers show up, present evidence about their ticket and wait to see how a judge rules.

A politically connected person can make arrangements ahead of time for favorable treatment.

With the FBI now crawling all over Traffic Court, the Supreme Court yesterday removed Administrative Judge Michael Sullivan from his post, replaced him with Common Pleas Judge Gary Glazer and announced that it is launching its own inquiry.

Castille said an initial review by the firm Chadwick Associates found that the practice of Traffic Court judges and staff "accepting external requests for favorable treatment was so prevailing that it had become institutionalized in the operation of the courts."

Castille declined to detail how the ticket-fixing worked in Traffic Court, adding that he didn't know if it was also done for money or just as political favors.

"This is, as we have seen, kind of an ingrained culture in the Traffic Court of adjusting these tickets and not really giving the city and citizens a fair shake," he said. "I'm sure the FBI later on will enlighten us as to the details of how these tickets were adjusted."

The FBI in September served subpoenas at Traffic Court's offices, Sullivan's home, the home of Traffic Court Director of Records William Hird and at the home of retired Traffic Court Administrative Judge Fortunato Perri Sr.

Castille said the agents also served subpoenas at the Fireside Tavern in South Philly, run by Sullivan, and at the Cannonball Tavern in Bridesburg, run by Hird.

Sullivan's attorney, Henry Hockeimer, pushed back against yesterday's action, calling it "surprising and disappointing" while insisting Sullivan had done nothing wrong. Hockeimer said he wants to take a look at the review by Chadwick Associates.

"Judge Sullivan has continued to effectively perform his functions as administrative judge," Hockeimer said, noting that the FBI subpoenas were served three months ago. "We certainly hope this move is not being driven by politics or some other agenda."

Frank Keel, a spokesman for the 1st Judicial District, said the Traffic Court review is an "evolving, ongoing process."

"When the report is finalized, a determination will be made at that undetermined point in time as to whether or not it will be made public," Keel added.

Sullivan, a former Democratic ward leader, won a second six-year term on the bench in last month's general election.

He will continue to hear Traffic Court cases for now, Castille said.

Hird, who was hired by Traffic Court in 1997, did not respond to requests for comment.

Perri was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Perri reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 2007 and is now a senior judge. He can serve in that role until age 78.

Castille said he did not know whether the FBI investigation involving Sullivan, Perri and Hird is related to the August 2010 subpoenas served at the office and home of Traffic Court Judge Bob Mulgrew. Subpoenas that day were also served at the home and office of state Rep. Bill Keller, his business partner, his chief of staff and a public-relations consultant who worked on his campaign.

Glazer yesterday repeatedly stressed that it would take some time to bring "culture change to the Traffic Court."

"I think the goal here is to have a court that the public has confidence in and ultimately to have a court where cases are decided on what is involved and not who is involved," Glazer said.

"It's a generational issue here. This has been building up for who knows how many years. One of the major things we have to change is the way people think."

Glazer, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted judicial corruption cases in the 1980s, started that effort with an early-morning meeting yesterday with Traffic Court judges and staff, who were ordered to cooperate with the FBI investigation and Supreme Court review.

"What I learned is judicial corruption operates in very closely held situations," Glazer said.

"It's not done in the open. It's not done in any clear fashion.

"Obviously with judicial decisions there are shades of gray."

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