What did 'consideration' mean to Traffic Court judges?

Posted: June 04, 2014

As the ticket-fixing trial of five former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges entered its fifth day Monday, lawyers for both sides grappled over what has become the central question of the case:

What exactly did a request to a judge for "consideration" mean?

Federal prosecutors allege the phrase, routinely bandied between judges and their personal assistants, served as a code word for seeking an outright dismissal of traffic tickets for friends, family and political allies. The courts' pervasive culture of ticket-fixing cost the state and city untold revenue in fines, they say.

Defense lawyers, however, maintain those seeking "consideration" were only looking for judges to exercise the same discretion they might apply in any case argued in open court.

But as a parade of personal assistants to the judges continued to testify Monday, it became clear not even those who used the term most frequently always shared the same understanding of what it meant.

" Consideration to me meant a plea bargain," Gloria McNasby, personal assistant to former Judge Robert Mulgrew, testified Monday.

Among the judges, too, consideration appeared to mean different things.

Where previous witnesses described judges dismissing "consideration" cases wholesale, McNasby told jurors that her boss rarely dismissed the cases flagged on folded index cards and passed between judicial chambers.

Instead, he would lower the charges, reduce the fines or ensure the persons who received the citations didn't earn points on their state driving records, she said.

But to Maryann Trombetta, a Traffic Court officer who at times filled in as a personal assistant to Judge H. Warren Hogeland, the term carried no such ambiguity. " Consideration meant dismissal," she told jurors Monday.

She routinely flagged "consideration" cases on Hogeland's docket with a code meaning "not guilty," and more often than not the judge followed her lead, she testified.

But Hogeland, a Bucks County magistrate temporarily assigned to hear traffic cases in Philadelphia, wasn't always willing to go along with what Trombetta described as "the culture" of Traffic Court.

(Hogeland pleaded guilty to mail and wire fraud charges last year, but died in August before he could be sentenced.)

Trombetta recalled overhearing a heated argument between Hogeland and then-Judge Willie Singletary, after Hogeland refused to dismiss a DUI-related case that Singletary had allegedly flagged for "consideration."

Judges have to stick together, Trombetta recalled Singletary saying.

Singletary's defense lawyer, William J. Brennan, however, stressed yet another use of the term.

After all, he said, prosecutors and the FBI used their "consideration" to charge only judges and not those he deemed equally culpable in the alleged crimes - court employees and those who received tickets and sought out special treatment.

Most of the court employees now serving as state witnesses have received immunity from prosecution.

"I could go through all the witnesses, and your answer would be that the government used its discretion on who should be charged in this case," he said, questioning FBI case agent Jason Blake.

But throughout the day, prosecutor Denise Wolf struck back against such comparisons.

Unlike traffic-ticket plea bargains, which were negotiated in open court, "consideration" requests were discussed in hushed tones in judicial chambers and referenced in code on docket sheets, she said.

As for the decision-making of Agent Blake and his colleagues, Wolf asked, "Did the U.S. government and the FBI ever get a phone call from a local politician to discuss who to charge? . . .ever leave quiet messages in a box hidden under a local bar?"

The agent responded: "Absolutely not."

Testimony in the trial is expected to resume Tuesday.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

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