Federal trial of former Traffic Court judges gets underway

Former traffic court judge Willie Singletary enters federal courthouse along Market St. on Tuesday morning. Traffic court judges outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse at 6th and Market St. in Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 27, 2014. The judges are accused of allegedly fixing tickets. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Former traffic court judge Willie Singletary enters federal courthouse along Market St. on Tuesday morning. Traffic court judges outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse at 6th and Market St. in Philadelphia on Tuesday, May 27, 2014. The judges are accused of allegedly fixing tickets. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER ) (DN)
Posted: May 29, 2014

INSIDE THE walls of Philadelphia Traffic Court, some ticketed drivers got VIP treatment because they were politically or socially connected to a judge or someone the judge knew, a federal prosecutor told a jury yesterday.

The defendants fixed tickets "for their friends and for their family," Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf said in her opening statement at the trial of six former Traffic Court judges and one businessman. "They fixed them for their political supporters. They fixed them for their business customers."

If you knew the defendants, Wolf said, "chances are you would get no penalties on your ticket." By dismissing tickets or reducing fines, the judges defrauded the city and the state of money needed for public services, she said.

On trial are former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary and Thomasine Tynes, who had served full time in the court at 8th and Spring Garden streets.

Also facing trial are Magisterial District Judge Mark A. Bruno, of West Chester; and Chinatown businessman Robert Moy, accused of getting tickets fixed for clients. All defendants are charged with conspiracy and fraud.

Wolf said jurors would hear from "driver after driver, ticket holder after ticket holder," who got their tickets fixed by the judges. Some staffers called ticket-fixing "consideration," she said.

"We cannot show you every ticket that was fixed, since this ticket-fixing culture began years ago at the Traffic Court," she said. Instead, the government's case centers on about 50 tickets allegedly fixed between 2008 and 2011.

Among the witnesses jurors will hear from are the judges' "personals," or key aides in the courtroom, Wolf said. The "personals" had their own methods to let judges know when a ticket holder who was to receive favorable treatment would appear in court, she said.

The "personal" would write on an index card the ticket holder's name or citation number, whisper in a judge's ear, or give a judge a nod in court, Wolf said.

When Wolf said the "personals" have received immunity from the government in exchange for their testimony, one woman in the gallery mumbled, "They're rats."

Hank Hockeimer, an attorney for Sullivan, pointed out that in Philadelphia, unlike the rest of the state, the city cop or state trooper who issued the ticket doesn't have to show up for the hearing, and typically doesn't.

Ticket holders "who are really motivated are the ones who show up" to plead their cases, he said. "If you show up in Traffic Court, you get a break of some kind, [whether you are] connected or otherwise. The government will have you believe that there was this separate track, but you'll hear evidence that there wasn't any separate track."

Bill DeStefano, an attorney for Lowry, said his client "didn't give out any special favors, didn't fix any tickets, but rather treated everybody in that courtroom - whether he be working man or woman who didn't know anybody, or somebody who knew somebody - in exactly the same manner."

Mulgrew's attorney, Angie Halim, told jurors that Traffic Court was a busy place where a judge could have on his or her list 100 to 200 tickets a day.

"Did he [Mulgrew] consider certain things?" she said in her opening statement. "Absolutely. Because it was his job as a judge. . . . He considered whether or not the individual showed up" and the validity of the ticket. "Then with fairness, he made a ruling," she said.

William J. Brennan, Singletary's attorney, said jurors might have thought at first, " 'Wow, judges. Judges taking bribes. Oh it's so offensive.' . . . [But] there's not one allegation on any of these people that a dime changed hands, a penny, anything of value with these people."

Louis Busico, Tynes' attorney, scoffed at the feds' contention that the city and state were cheated out of money. He asked jurors to listen to Tynes' and the other defendants' sides of the story.

With a ticket holder in front of them, the former judges perhaps thought, " 'Maybe I'll let you keep your license so you can go to work, or maybe I'll let you off with no points, so Nationwide, who's on your side, isn't further in your pocket,' " said Busico, eliciting chuckles in the courtroom over the insurance-company reference.

Vincent DiFabio, one of Bruno's attorneys, told jurors that his client "is not a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge," but a "magisterial district judge from West Chester," who sat in Philadelphia Traffic Court just four times a year. "There is a complete lack of evidence as to his participation in any kind of scheme."

Moy's attorney, Paul Hetznecker, said his client is "not some powerful businessman that lines his pockets with ticket-fixing proceeds." Rather, he has been a "trusted businessman in the Chinese community in Philadelphia" for 30 years and has helped people who don't know English understand their tickets, he said. "He'll translate, he'll interpret," Hetznecker said.

Three ex-judges, the court's ex-administrator and businessman Henry "Eddie" Alfano have pleaded guilty in the case.


On Twitter: @julieshawphilly

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