A veteran Philadelphia corruption-buster says the current wave of investigations is a good sign

Walter M. Phillips Jr. investigated ticket-fixing - in the 1970s. He blames corruption on the practice of electing judges.
Walter M. Phillips Jr. investigated ticket-fixing - in the 1970s. He blames corruption on the practice of electing judges. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: February 08, 2013

A Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice is on trial on charges of violating campaign-finance law, a city councilwoman has admitted using campaign funds to repay a personal loan, and nine past and present judges of Philadelphia Traffic Court have been indicted in a federal ticket-fixing probe.

This might be a good thing.

Far from signaling the imminent political demise of state and municipal government, former city and federal prosecutor Walter M. Phillips Jr. said the blizzard of corruption investigations is a sign of progress.

Decades ago, many prosecutors and judges would not come near corruption cases for fear of offending political handlers. Now, he said, federal and some local authorities are eager to lower the boom.

"It started in the 1970s and has continued," said Phillips, 74, a white-collar defense lawyer and litigator at the Center City firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel.

He was among a vanguard of prosecutors in the mid-1960s who began making public-corruption cases after decades of inaction. Phillips started his career in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office under Arlen Specter, an ambitious young corruption-fighter himself who would go on to a career in the U.S. Senate.

Phillips moved on to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, which long has attracted some of the nation's best and most ambitious lawyers. It was there that he rubbed shoulders with, among others, the young Rudy Giuliani and Richard Ben-Veniste, the Muhlenberg College and Columbia Law School graduate who went on to serve as a prominent Watergate prosecutor and as a member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Phillips said the head of that office, legendary prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, blazed a trail, cracking down on public corruption and complex white-collar fraud cases. For a time, he was one of the few. But it was not long before other federal prosecutors followed his lead, and soon corruption cases were being made in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

In 1974, Phillips left the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan to take a job as special prosecutor for police corruption in Philadelphia - a position established following a finding by the Pennsylvania Crime Commission of rampant police corruption in the city.

Phillips confronted a disparate cast of political and judicial figures.

Some were sympathetic and assisted wherever they could, he said, but many in the city's political and judicial establishment, fearing that the self-enriching ways of doing business were about to end, threw up roadblocks.

On one notable occasion, Phillips said, Supreme Court Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr. took the highly unusual step of blocking a search-warrant execution. Phillips said he suspected the reason was to protect a political ally.

"There was no valid reason," he said. "It may have reflected a sort of attitude at the time that you can enjoin someone who is trying to get to the bottom of corruption."

For much of his time as special prosecutor, Phillips had former State Sen. Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani on his radar. Cianfrani, who went on to serve five years in Allenwood federal prison for racketeering, bribery, and obstruction of justice after he was nailed, succeeded in persuading the state attorney general to fire Phillips for leaking stories to the press.

Then he cut off the investigators' budget.

At the time, Cianfrani boasted about Phillips, "If he can't get me, what kind of investigator is he?"

But Phillips, who dubbed Cianfrani the "Big Cannelloni," got the last laugh. He forwarded the results of his work to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, which used it as the basis for its own investigation - and Cianfrani's eventual conviction.

These days, Phillips gives the city's Board of Ethics high marks for its investigation of Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who admitted using campaign funds to repay a personal loan and in other instances depositing campaign funds directly into her personal bank account.

Back in the 1970s, Phillips and his team investigated ticket-fixing as well, and many of the same themes emerged then as now. The problem with the court, he said, is the practice of electing judges, which blurs the line between politics and the law.

And it's a line that blurs up through the state's highest court.

Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is on trial in Pittsburgh, charged with violating campaign-finance laws. She, like the Traffic Court judges, denies involvement in any wrongdoing.

"Fixing tickets in Philadelphia has been a way of life," Phillips said. "You have a system of elected judges who get picked by the party, and it is only the candidates at the lowest level who end up being candidates for the [traffic] court."

Contact Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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