Deep split on probe of Traffic Court

William G. Chadwick did the report on a court system where ticket-fixing has been called endemic.
William G. Chadwick did the report on a court system where ticket-fixing has been called endemic.

Some say Chadwick's inquiry was vital and offered a reform map. Critics say it could harm FBI work and judges' rights.

Posted: December 03, 2012

As the scandal over ticket-fixing at Philadelphia's Traffic Court continues to rivet the region's legal community, judges and top lawyers are assessing the investigation that triggered the furor - and debating the hardball tactics of the inquiry.

Supporters of the probe, carried out by consultant William G. Chadwick at the urging of State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, said it shone light deep into hidden crevices of the court and laid out a reform plan for the years ahead.

But others, including a top defense lawyer representing a judge criticized in the report, said the probe needlessly duplicated and possibly muddied an ongoing FBI investigation.

The detractors also complained about Chadwick's tough line with judges and staff - he told them they had better talk or face discipline from the high court.

Samuel C. Stretton, a lawyer for one of the judges criticized in the report, said the ultimatum ran roughshod over the judges' rights. "I think it's just wrong," he said.

Chadwick said he needed a way to break down the resistance in a court where ticket-fixing was endemic.

"We couldn't allow the workforce to stonewall us as we attempted to learn how the place operated," Chadwick said.

In the 35-page report, Chadwick, a former top prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office when Castille was D.A., reported that 22 court employees, as well as four judges, acknowledged that ticket-fixing was widespread.

The report said the court had "two tracks": one for the ordinary driver and another for the politically connected, who could avoid the fines, insurance surcharges, or lost licenses that came with conviction.

Common Pleas Court Judge Gary S. Glazer, appointed by Castille to reform Traffic Court after FBI raids a year ago served notice of the federal probe, said Chadwick's team had a different focus than the ongoing federal investigation.

"They are complementary," he said of the two inquiries. "You need both."

Glazer and Chadwick said federal prosecutors had to focus strictly on building possible indictments. By contrast, they said, the court probe examined a broader range of conduct, from the questionable and improper to the flatly criminal.

Moreover, they noted, the court report provided the public and the Supreme Court with a menu of reform options, from outright abolishing Traffic Court to, less dramatically, requiring its judges to hold law degrees.

Decade after decade of federal indictments, Glazer said, showed that criminal cases alone could not produce real change.

"The hard part is what do you do going forward - how to make it better," Glazer said.

Veteran defense lawyer Dennis Cogan agreed.

"There may be things that go on within the state [court] system that aren't criminal in nature but that must be addressed," Cogan said.

Attorney David W. Marston, who served as U.S. attorney for the Philadelphia region in the late 1970s, said Chadwick's report could lead to real change.

"I was very impressed with Mr. Chadwick's report," Marston said. "He seems to have gone to great pains to really nail things down. The system can be shaken up and fixed. I think the first step in doing that is putting a spotlight on it."

In his report, Chadwick said he had consulted with federal prosecutors and each side had agreed that neither "would share its findings with the other."

Since Chadwick's work was made public, federal authorities involved in the probe have pledged not to read the report or media accounts, sources directly familiar with the federal investigation said.

That way, federal criminal investigators would be able to assert that any indictments were not the result of information coerced from Traffic Court judges by their superiors.

In an interview, Chadwick said the policy of compelling cooperation was approved in advance by court lawyers. The legal review found it did not conflict with protection against self-incrimination as long as the interviews were not shared with federal authorities, he said.

But Stretton, who was recently hired to represent Traffic Court Judge Christine Solomon, said he doubted that the federal investigators would not learn of the court's inquiry.

While Stretton acknowledged that the state Supreme Court had administrative oversight over Traffic Court judges, he added: "There's a big difference between that and telling a judge you better come in here and talk to us or you will be punished."

The Chadwick report says that Solomon opened up only after she was pressured.

At first, the report said, Solomon initially claimed to be unfamiliar with the term ticket-fixing. In a follow-up interview, she admitted knowledge of the practice - after she was warned that "her refusal to cooperate would be forwarded to the Supreme Court."

Attorney Gilbert J. Scutti, also a former federal prosecutor, said Chadwick's inquiry put the judges in a no-win position.

He said judges might have felt they would be punished if they admitted to the widespread practice of fixing tickets - but also if they didn't cooperate.

"It's basically choosing your poison," he said. "There are no good choices."

Like Stretton, Scutti said the Chadwick interviews could complicate any future U.S. criminal cases. "I think this really presents a lot of problems for a criminal prosecution," he said.

Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Friday that she couldn't confirm a federal probe was under way, let alone comment on any aspect of an investigation.


Read the full investigative report on Philadelphia Traffic Court at: www.philly.com/trafficcourt


Contact Craig R. McCoy

at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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