Report details Traffic Court awash in favoritism

Judge Gary S. Glazer, who was put in charge of traffic court after FBI raids.
Judge Gary S. Glazer, who was put in charge of traffic court after FBI raids. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 26, 2012

The Philadelphia Traffic Court has been dogged by allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and political interference since its founding in 1938 - not long after the dawn of mass automobile use.

By the time the FBI started snooping around in September 2011, raiding Traffic Court offices and judges' homes, the court had an established, shadow ticket-fixing bureaucracy.

Routine ticket-fixing involved all seven judges active at the time, and was so ingrained that patronage employees viewed political favors as "part of their job responsibilities."

Those were the conclusions of a special investigative report commissioned by the state Supreme Court in the wake of the FBI raids. The Inquirer obtained a copy of the report, compiled by the consulting firm Chadwick Associates, after it was submitted on Monday.

The 35-page document reads like a manual on Why Things Are Different in Philly, describing a culture of political favoritism so cynical that one court employee believed the system was fair, since anyone could ask a ward leader to intercede.

"The employee said that it was the violator's own fault if he or she didn't know enough to seek help from someone who was politically connected," the report said.

The son of Christine Solomon, a Northeast ward leader for 20 years, racked up 38 traffic violations over a 13-year period and won 29 acquittals, the report said. Solomon was elected to be a Traffic Court judge in November 2011, after the FBI raids.

In two initial interviews with investigators, Solomon denied any knowledge about the practice of "special consideration."

Solomon changed her tune slightly after Administrative Judge Gary Glazer - a former federal prosecutor put in charge of Traffic Court after the raids - warned "that as a judicial officer she had a responsibility to be truthful."

She then acknowledged in a third interview that as a ward leader she had asked for special consideration.

"It's just politics," she said, according to the report. "That's all."

She refused to cooperate further, the report said, because she did not want to incriminate others. The court did seem to operate on at least that ethic - the one that demands no snitching.

The report said employees who admitted to ticket-fixing "were reluctant or unwilling to name violators" who asked for help, or to identify judges who granted it, "unless the judge was deceased or no longer sat in Traffic Court."

Typically, the report said, requests to fix tickets were passed to judges on index cards or database printouts that were discarded after the hearings.

The requests came from the politically connected on behalf of friends, family, and constituents, as well as from court workers and judges on behalf of their own friends and family, the report said.

Requests were "partially centralized" about four years ago, the report said, when William Hird, then the director of courtroom operations, began "acting as a clearinghouse."

He would receive phone calls about forthcoming cases, print out the dockets, make notes, and pass the information along to the judges, the report states.

This system was "broadly accepted by court employees," the report said.

Two of the seven judges sitting on the bench at the time of the FBI raids admitted to participating in ticket-fixing - one, Judge Michael Lowry, told investigators that requests were "minimal," or a "couple" a month.

The report found some weeks would bring no requests, but "other weeks there would be numerous requests for each judge."

One judge, Robert Mulgrew, denied participating in ticket-fixing, but admitted the practice was part of the court's culture. Mulgrew was indicted earlier this year for alleged fraud and tax evasion, federal charges unrelated to the court.

Three judges refused to be interviewed. The remaining judge, William Singletary, quit the bench after he was accused of showing a cellphone picture of his genitals to a court secretary.

The report said "it is evident" that the seven judges at the time of the raids "are subjects or targets of federal scrutiny."

Of the seven, three - Thomasine Tines, Bernice DeAngelis, and Warren Hogeland - have left the court. Mulgrew was suspended, and Singletary resigned after being suspended.

Two remain on the bench - Lowry and Judge Michael Sullivan, who declined to speak to Chadwick investigators on the advice of his attorney.

The report said "some employees expressed the belief that . . . there was nothing wrong with doing favors as long as money did not change hands."

But Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court reform organization, noted the loss of revenue from ticket-fixing - as well as the erosion of "equal justice."

"Even though actual cash may not have changed hands, it's just as bad because it's undermining our system of justice," she said. "It's a real problem when you can call up someone in government and say, 'I want special treatment.' "

Traffic Court long has seemed content to be corrupt, despite numerous attempts to end the turpitude. The report said court employees doubted that change was possible.

"Having seen past reform efforts stall after the spotlight on the latest scandal faded, employees have some basis for skepticism," the report said.

The report praised Glazer and the reforms he has put into place, but considered structural changes that would address "the key integrity problem at Traffic Court . . . the judges themselves."

The report suggested three changes:

Require judges to be attorneys; eliminate the elected position of judge and employ nonelected hearing officers instead; or eliminate Traffic Court and transfer jurisdiction to Philadelphia Municipal Court, a change made a decade ago in Pittsburgh.

What is unlikely to change in the short term is Philadelphians' apparent bedrock belief in their right to get tickets fixed, a culture thus far unyielding to reform.

"The perseverance of individuals seeking favorable treatment," the report concluded, "can be daunting."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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