Nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges charged in probe

William J. Brennan (left), the attorney representing former Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary (center), takes questions from reporters before entering federal court.
William J. Brennan (left), the attorney representing former Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary (center), takes questions from reporters before entering federal court. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 02, 2013

Nine current and former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were charged with conspiracy and fraud Thursday, capping a three-year FBI probe into what authorities said was rampant ticket-fixing and pervasive corruption on the bench.

The charges, outlined in a 77-count indictment, described "a well-understood conspiracy of silence" that created two distinct courts: one where typical citizens paid for their infractions, and a second where offenders with the right connections won acquittals or saw their fines or cases disappear.

Those charged include Michael Lowry and Michael Sullivan, two of only three judges active on a seven-member bench already depleted by scandal. Both declined to comment. Sullivan's attorney said Sullivan never solicited or took a bribe and looked forward to his vindication.

State judiciary officials said they would seek to suspend or remove the accused judges and would send reinforcements to keep the court running.

The other defendants include seven former Traffic Court judges, including three current and former District Court judges in the suburbs; a former court administrator; and two businessmen accused of paying off judges or helping clients get tickets fixed.

The indictment alleged that a practice was more the rule than the exception - judges or their assistants shredding documents, shifting cases to friendly judges, and hiding behind code words. Instead of bluntly asking a colleague to quash a ticket, judges allegedly asked for "consideration" on certain cases and then watched them disappear.

Consideration, the indictment said, was reserved for friends and relatives, ward leaders, and contractors or merchants who could trade favors of their own. Requests came by phone, in person, and in notes dropped in a box at a local bar.

"In addition to depriving the City of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania of funds rightly owed on traffic violations, their corrupt conduct also undermined the confidence that law-abiding citizens have in our Philadelphia court system," U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said.

Besides Lowry and Sullivan, four of the defendants - former Judges Fortunato Perri Sr., Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary, and Thomasine Tynes - were once elected by Philadelphians. (Mulgrew was suspended last year after being charged in a fraud case related to a Philadelphia nonprofit. Singletary was removed amid misconduct allegations. Tynes retired.)

The other three are active or retired suburban District Court judges who served stints on Traffic Court: Mark A. Bruno of Chester County, H. Warren Hogeland of Bucks County, and Kenneth Miller of Delaware County.

Also charged were former court administrator William Hird and two businessmen, Henry P. "Eddie" Alfano, who owned a towing service that won a no-bid contract from Traffic Court, and Robert Moy, who marketed himself in newspaper advertisements as someone able to fix tickets.

The court, at Eighth and Spring Garden Streets, handles moving violations and other motor vehicle citations, and is separate from the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which governs parking.

Traffic Court, a reliable patronage mill under the city's ward system, has for decades been a magnet for controversy. Judges win election only with the blessing of the local political machine or a lucky poll position, then collect salaries of least $85,000 and a pension. The court twice before has been the focus of federal investigations.

The latest charges revealed a probe percolating for at least three years, built on evidence gathered in public raids and secret FBI wiretaps.

A preview emerged in the fall in a report commissioned by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille that found ticket-fixing pervasive.

The indictment added new details. It painted Hird as a key conduit who shuttled "consideration" requests among judges and arranged for cases to be scheduled before judges who would honor them.

A tavern owner who once ran a floor-covering business, Hird was Perri's personal assistant before being promoted to the court's director of records, a job that paid him $80,000. Hird in turn became deeply loyal to Perri, saying that without the judge, he would still be "moving furniture."

According to the indictment, Hird "facilitated requests for preferential treatment from local politicians," including two unnamed ward leaders.

At times, it said, the judges acted on their own.

Sullivan allegedly collected ticket-fix requests in a box behind the bar at the Fireside Tavern he owned on South Marshall Street.

One, allegedly dropped in the box in 2010, was succinct, listing the offender's initials ("R.H."), Social Security number, the word ticket, and noting he or she was a friend of a certain ward leader.

According to the indictment, Perri got free landscaping and a patio for assisting one unnamed contractor with "dozens of Traffic Court citations." He also is accused of accepting free auto services, towing, and a load of shrimp and crab cakes from Alfano, whose company, Century Motors, ran a towing service.

Alfano is a former police officer who had a long-standing friendship with Perri, according to one of his lawyers. The suggestion of payoffs for ticket-fixing was "a reach," said the lawyer, Jeffrey Miller.

All but one of the indicted defendants appeared before a magistrate judge and were released on $20,000 bonds.

"I'm so upset," Tynes said as she left Judge L. Felipe Restrepo's courtroom. "I don't know nothing, really."

Others said nothing, deferring to their lawyers.

"Judge Sullivan never asked for nor did he receive any bribe, kickback, or anything of value in exchange for performing his duties as an elected Traffic Court judge," attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. said in a statement. "Judge Sullivan handled each case before him fairly and competently."

Singletary's lawyer, William J. Brennan, said he was pleased after such an exhaustive investigation to see "the indictment does not allege that my client took one thin dime of graft or payola."

Hird's lawyer, Greg Pagano, said: "My client is a taxpaying, hardworking citizen who goes to work every day and who is being indicted essentially for doing his job."

Bruno was out of state and was expected to surrender next week.

Hogeland, Miller, and Perri were charged separately and were not required to appear. That process is typically reserved for defendants who intend to plead guilty.

Hogeland and Miller are each accused of fixing one ticket. Miller's lawyer, Michael Malloy, said his client was not an active judge at the time of the alleged fixing. He would not say whether Miller would plead guilty but said, "My client has told the truth when asked questions by anybody in the case."

Hogeland's lawyer, Craig Sopin, said his client had cooperated fully with investigations.

Perri is charged in six instances. His attorney, Brian McMonagle, declined to say whether a guilty plea was pending.

The indictment outlines 50 instances of alleged ticket-fixing, and fraud and conspiracy charges.

Hird and Singletary are also accused of lying to FBI agents. Mulgrew, Tynes, and Lowry are charged with committing perjury before a grand jury.

"You don't give out special favors, is that right?" a prosecutor asked Lowry before the grand jury in fall 2011, according to the indictment.

"No, I treat everybody the same," he replied.

The Philadelphia Bar Association called on the accused judges to resign.

"The charges . . . cast a shadow on the court that compromises the ability for justice to be dispensed fairly," said its chancellor, Kathleen D. Wilkinson.

The Republican floor leader of the state Senate, Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, said the indictments boosted his resolve to pass legislation abolishing the court.

"They confirm my opinion that the Traffic Court is not an institution that has any reason to continue to exist," Pileggi said in a conference call.

Mayor Nutter, through a spokesman, said he would support those efforts.

"The whole Traffic Court situation is an embarrassment and disgrace. It's long overdue for a total overhaul and should be either completely revamped or abolished," Nutter said. "I look forward to working with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the courts, and anyone who wants a fair, open, and legitimate system to adjudicate traffic violations with integrity and credibility."


Traffic Court Indictment

Henry P. "Eddie" Alfano: Former Philadelphia police officer, owner of an automobile salvage company. Obtained a no-bid contract from Traffic Court Judge Fortunato Perri Sr. to tow and store vehicles allegedly while providing automotive and other services for Perri. Landlord of two strip clubs.

Mark A. Bruno: Chester County district judge who occasionally presided over Traffic Court cases. Suspended from his Chester County post Thursday.

William Hird: Director of records for Traffic Court. Accused as administrator of all alleged ticket-fixing. Owner of Cannonball Tavern in Philadelphia. Resigned last year.

H. Warren Hogeland: Senior district judge from Bucks County. Appointed to serve as a senior judge on Traffic Court on Jan. 2, 2006. Served through early 2012, when Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille declined to certify him in the midst of Castille's own investigation of ticket-fixing.

Michael Lowry: Elected to Traffic Court in 2007. Former aide to State Rep. Michael McGeehan and son of a ward leader in the Northeast. He was serving until his indictment Thursday.

Kenneth Miller: Delaware County district judge from 1970 to 2006. Served one year as senior judge on Traffic Court, leaving in 2008. In 2010, filled in for Aston District Judge David Murphy, who was convicted of forging his own nominating signatures. Accused of fixing a ticket for an "unindicted co-conspirator" in 2011, dismissing the citation without the defendant showing up.

Robert Mulgrew: Former Electricians Union Local 98 employee, elected to Traffic Court in 2007. Suspended in September, when he was named in a separate federal indictment, accused of defrauding a neighborhood nonprofit.

Robert Moy: Local businessman who allegedly provided ticket-fixing services to customers in the Chinese community, sometimes guaranteeing results.

Fortunato Perri Sr.: Appointed to fill a vacancy on Traffic Court in 1997. Served as administrative judge from 2000 to '02. Became senior judge in 2007 and took assignments as requested. Accused of fixing tickets in exchange for a stream of benefits - car repairs, maintenance, and towing, landscaping, videos, and food from codefendant Alfano.

Willie Singletary: Elected in 2007, despite having accumulated $11,500 in violations; his driver's license was later suspended because of it. On the campaign trail, was recorded telling a crowd it should contribute to him because people would need a "hookup" on Traffic Court. Once in court, was caught showing a photo of his genitals to a staff member, which led to further discipline and his resignation last year.

Michael Sullivan: Member of Operating Engineers Local 542 and former Democratic ward leader. Won election in 2005 and was elevated to administrative judge early in 2011, giving him control over hiring. Stripped of administrative duties after the FBI raided court offices and his home in September 2011, but was still hearing cases up until Thursday.

Thomasine Tynes: Part of the political organization headed by former City Council President Joseph A. Coleman. Left the court on medical leave in early 2012 and retired in July.


Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649, jmartin@phillynews.com, or follow @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Bob Warner, Robert Moran, and Allison Steele.

|
|
|
|
|