Trial on corruption at Traffic Court resumes

Posted: June 18, 2014

Called before a grand jury two years ago, Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Michael Lowry testified that when it came to his rulings, everyone was treated "pretty much the same."

On Monday, his lawyer set out to prove it.

As the federal ticket-fixing trial of Lowry and five other former judges resumed after a weeklong break, attorney William DeStefano accused FBI agents of focusing their investigation too narrowly and ignoring evidence that backed Lowry's claims.

Brandishing statistical analysis of a day in his client's courtroom, DeStefano argued that at least one case singled out by prosecutors as an example of special treatment was anything but.

The ticket-holder ended up with the day's worst outcome - a bigger fine than anyone else that day, he said.

"He didn't do anything special for her," DeStefano said of the driver. "You never actually went into court to see how he ruled."

DeStefano's argument came during his cross-examination of Jason Blake, the FBI agent who led the investigation, after days of testimony centered on a 2010 speeding ticket given to New Jersey resident Diandra Salvatore.

On Aug. 26 of that year, Pennsylvania state police clocked her going 85 m.p.h. on a 55-m.p.h. stretch of I-95, an offense punishable by a $247 fine and up to two points on her driving record. Her father reached out through an intermediary to Fortunato Perri Sr., then a retired Traffic Court judge, who in turn asked his contacts at the court to look out for the girl.

Prosecutors allege such requests for "consideration" were the norm among Traffic Court's judges and led to dozens of dismissals for their friends, family members, and political allies - not to mention the loss of untold government revenue in fines and fees.

And when Salvatore's ticket landed before Lowry on Nov. 30, 2011, she left court that day with her ticket reduced to driving five miles over the limit, her fine reduced to $187, and no points on her record - an outcome Perri later described as "a good deal."

"You can't always get a home run," Perri later said of Salvatore's ticket, in a wiretapped conversation played for jurors Monday. "It was 30 miles over - he didn't have a lot of room to wiggle."

Testifying Monday, Blake told jurors that conversation was evidence of both Perri and Lowry's involvement in ticket fixing.

"She got a different backdoor deal than the other defendants that day," he said.

DeStefano countered. Not only did the tape fail to prove that Lowry agreed to cut Salvatore a break, investigators never bothered to check whether her outcome was in fact better than anyone else's, he said.

Of the 11 other drivers with state police speeding tickets to come before Lowry that day, all received a reduced penalty. None had points added to their driving record. In fact, DeStefano said, Salvatore ended up paying the largest fine of the day.

Responding, Blake said he focused on Salvatore's ticket because he knew through wiretaps it was one Perri had tried to fix. He felt reviewing the day's other cases was not important to the investigation.

"Fortunately," DeStefano replied with a nod to the jury, "you're not the one who gets to decide what's important."

Testimony is expected to resume Tuesday.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

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