On stand, nephew accuses Traffic Court judge

Robert Mulgrew also faces tax charges.
Robert Mulgrew also faces tax charges.
Posted: September 20, 2013

The nephew of a Traffic Court judge delivered potentially damaging testimony against his uncle Wednesday, telling a federal jury that his relative on the bench enlisted him in what prosecutors say was a scheme to rip off a South Philadelphia nonprofit organization.

The nephew of Judge Robert Mulgrew said that when he worked for the nonprofit, his uncle instructed him to submit receipts for reimbursement that had nothing to do with the organization.

"My uncle told me to put an extra one in there," Robert McKissick testified in a halting voice, referring to one such receipt.

In his opening remarks to the jury earlier Wednesday, a federal prosecutor said that Mulgrew submitted such receipts to the state to cover up his theft of tens of thousands of dollars given the group to clean up a rundown park and trash-strewn neighborhood lots.

"Mr. Mulgrew," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul L. Gray said, "picked the taxpayer's pocket, receipt by receipt by receipt."

Prosecutors say Mulgrew skimmed or misused about $80,000 from the nonprofit, known as the Friends of Dickinson Square, ripping off about a third of the state grants it received between 2002 and 2007.

The suspended Traffic Court judge is also accused of failing to pay about $80,000 in income taxes between 2006 and 2010. His wife, Elizabeth Mulgrew, is a codefendant on the tax charges.

Robert Mulgrew's lawyer, Angie Halim, told the jury her client had worked morning and night to improve the park and the surrounding Pennsport neighborhood.

"He has an incredible work ethic," Halim said. "He's the guy in his neighborhood who if you needed something done - call Bobby."

In submitting reports to the state as the neighborhood group's vice president, Halim said, Mulgrew sometimes made errors. "Did he make mistakes? Yes," she said, adding "Luckily for all of us, mistakes are not a crime."

Brian J. McMonagle, Elizabeth Mulgrew's lawyer, said her husband had prepared the tax returns. "All he ever asked of Elizabeth 'Betsy' Mulgrew, once a year, was sign," McMonagle said.

Mulgrew, 56, suspended with pay after his indictment, was criminally charged a year ago in the first in a series of indictments that have all but emptied the Traffic Court bench in Philadelphia.

While he faces charges related to the nonprofit and his taxes, nine other former and current Traffic Court judges were charged in January with conspiring to fix tickets.

Prosecutors say the state grants in question were garnered for the nonprofit by State Rep. William Keller, the Democrat who represents the area in the legislature's lower chamber. A top Keller aide, Lorraine DiSpaldo, 58, pleaded guilty in April to joining with Mulgrew in the ripoff.

She is awaiting sentencing, and the jurors are not being told of her plea during the trial before U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones 2d.

In other testimony Wednesday, a civic activist, Ashley Tobin, said that after she moved into the neighborhood in 2006, she had enlisted dozens of people to help clean up Dickinson Square, a park off Fourth and Tasker Street in South Philadelphia.

In the process, she testified, she met with Keller. Tobin said the legislator never told her about the Friends of Dickinson Square group - or the nearly $300,000 in state grants he had helped deliver to the group between 2002 and 2006.

In evidence shown to the jury via a large computer monitor, prosecutor Gray highlighted a newsletter from Tobin's group. "No money" was available for fixing up the park, the newsletter reported.

Keller did not return telephone calls Wednesday seeking comment. According to Tobin's testimony, the lawmaker's former aide, DiSpaldo, did give one form of assistance - pizzas for Tobin's volunteers.

Contact Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com or follow @CraigRMcCoy on Twitter.

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