Trial of former Traffic Court judges begins this week

Posted: May 20, 2014

UPDATE: 1:55 p.m.:

Jury selection in this case has been postponed to Wednesday. The judge who was presiding over the case, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Kelly, is unavailable to preside at the trial because of illness, an order filed today by Chief Judge Petrese Tucker said. This case will now be heard by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel.

Earlier story below ...

IT'S TIME for the judges to be judged.

Six former Traffic Court judges and two businessmen will head to federal court in Philadelphia this morning for jury selection in their trial on accusations that they participated in a widespread ticket-fixing scheme.

The ex-judges - Michael Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary, Thomasine Tynes and Mark Bruno - allegedly gave preferential treatment on tickets to politically or socially connected people.

In so doing, the government contends, they defrauded the city and state of needed funds.

The businessmen - Henry "Eddie" Alfano and Robert Moy - are accused of using their connections with former or then-current judges to help get tickets fixed for people they knew.

Opening statements likely will come tomorrow or Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors, in a trial memorandum filed Thursday, said they expect the case to last about a month and will call at least 101 witnesses to the stand.

The witnesses include people who allegedly had their tickets fixed, asked for tickets to be fixed on behalf of someone else, or helped to get tickets fixed.

The list includes City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson; John Fenton, an aide to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell; and ward leaders William Dolbow, Michael McAleer, Emilio Vazquez and Matt Myers. It also includes people who worked in Traffic Court.

"The government anticipates that many of its witnesses will be adverse given their loyal relationships with the defendants," Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf, one of the two prosecutors on the case, wrote in the trial memorandum. "Indeed, the government has repeatedly encountered hostility from some of the witnesses in preparation for trial."

The government has previously asked Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Kelly, who is presiding over the trial, to grant many of the witnesses immunity in exchange for compelling them to testify at the trial.

The January 2013 indictment accuses the former judges of using their positions "to manipulate Traffic Court cases outside the judicial process . . . for politically connected individuals, friends, family members, associates, and others with influential positions."

The "ticket-fixing" consisted of dismissing tickets outright, finding the ticketholder not guilty after a hearing in which the ticketholder didn't show up, adjudicating the ticket in a manner to reduce fines and avoid points, and obtaining postponements of trial dates to "judge-shop," or find a judge who would agree to a request for preferential treatment.

Traffic Court judges and staff often referred to these requests for preferential treatment as requests for "consideration." They kept this practice covert "by shredding paperwork, speaking to one another in code, and trusting only certain individuals and not others to carry out the scheme," the indictment says.

The allegations span from July 2008 to September 2011.

Traffic Court, created in 1938, was long a bastion of patronage jobs. The court handled moving violations given to drivers by city police or State Police.

A case of 'overkill'?

Defense attorney Jeffrey M. Miller, a former federal prosecutor who is representing Alfano, on Friday described the government's case as "a major reach."

"It's grabbing at a nucleus of facts, which technically may be a minor infraction," he said.

"Instead, the government has expanded this thing into a major prosecution. . . . I think it's overkill. . . . These are not bad people and these are not criminals."

Bill DeStefano, attorney for Lowry, said: "Listening to a request for consideration does not equate with fixing" a ticket.

Paul Hetznecker, attorney for Moy, a Chinatown businessman, said the feds wrongly charged the defendants with corruption. "By indicting those on the lowest rung of the political ladder, they have attempted to portray them as power brokers, while at the same time offering immunity to the real stakeholders in the political process," he said.

Singletary's attorney, William J. Brennan, said there is no allegation "that any money changed hands, that received anything of value"

Attorney Louis Busico called his client, Tynes, "a Philadelphia treasure and institution, . . . a woman of integrity."

Mulgrew's attorney, Angie Halim, said her client "treated everyone in his courtroom equally and with fairness."

Three other former judges - Fortunato Perri Sr. and two suburban magistrates who heard Philly Traffic Court cases - and the court's former administrator, Billy Hird, have pleaded guilty in the case. The suburban judges were Kenneth Miller, of Delaware County, and H. Warren Hogeland, of Bucks County. Hogeland died in August at age 76 of complications from heart surgery; he had not yet been sentenced. Perri, Miller and Hird await sentencing.

Last June, Gov. Corbett signed an order folding Traffic Court into the newly created Traffic Division of Philadelphia Municipal Court. The court is overseen by Common Pleas Judge Gary Glazer, appointed in December 2011 by the state Supreme Court as administrative judge.

Glazer, a former assistant U.S. attorney, has been overseeing reforms of the court, located at 8th and Spring Garden streets in North Philadelphia.

On Twitter: @julieshawphilly

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