Aide to Blackwell testifies about Traffic Court

Posted: June 28, 2014

An aide to City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell testified Thursday that his boss had no idea he had dropped her name at Philadelphia Traffic Court in the hope of fixing a ticket for one of her distant relations.

James Fenton, Blackwell's director of constituent services, said the councilwoman's brother-in-law contacted him in 2011 about a citation his brother had received.

Fenton called court staff to ask for help, but never mentioned the matter to his boss, he said. The ticket landed in front of Willie Singletary, a judge Blackwell helped elect to Traffic Court.

"Using her name . . . I thought it would bring a little more weight to that particular ticket," Fenton said. "I still don't think I did anything wrong, to this day."

Fenton's testimony Thursday in U.S. District Court placed Blackwell on the ever-growing list of public officials whose names have surfaced in the ticket-fixing trial of five former Traffic Court judges charged with mail and wire fraud.

Their ranks so far include U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, State Rep. John Taylor, and even Mayor Nutter.

That last name caught even federal prosecutors Denise Wolf and Anthony Wzorek off guard Tuesday, when a former judicial assistant testified he received calls seeking consideration for certain traffic citations from the then-councilman's office.

Nutter, who staked his mayoral run in 2007 on being a good-government candidate, and all of the other politicians named have denied they ever tried to influence the course of justice at Traffic Court.

But as Bernard Lindline, the court's chief of courtroom operations, demonstrated during his appearance on the stand Thursday, the line between calling in special favors and what politicians and their staff members call "constituent service" could often be hazy.

Lindline told jurors he met daily with the court's chief administrator to distribute to the judges' assistants lists of tickets flagged for "consideration." Whose names appeared on those lists?

"A politician or someone in their office would reach out on behalf of one of their constituents - you know, somebody from their neighborhood that might need the judge to look a little closer at the case," Lindline said.

Since almost everyone who contested tickets in court received a break, Lindline said he couldn't say for sure whether "consideration" requests ensured a better outcome.

Or, as defense attorney William DeStefano, who represents former Judge Michael Lowry, put it during cross-examination: With the court's judges hearing hundreds of cases each day, "all that was being asked in this sea of tickets the judges are looking at was that they take a special look."

Lindline agreed.

Prosecutors have increasingly appeared frustrated as several current and former Traffic Court employees have responded, like Lindline, with a shrug to what they describe as the court's ingrained ticket-fixing culture.

"Why wouldn't the judge take a close look at every case?" Wolf challenged Lindline during a testy exchange Thursday. "You had a backroom door that I - Denise Wolf - did not have."

As for Fenton, Blackwell's aide, who described his role as helping her West Philadelphia constituents "navigate through the system," he saw his call to the court on behalf of the councilwoman's brother-in-law as an extension of his job.

He testified Thursday that Joseph Wilcox, who is married to Blackwell's sister, contacted him three years ago about a ticket his brother had received for going in reverse on a one-way street. Fenton called Singletary's assistant, hoping Wilcox's brother would be found not guilty.

Fenton told jurors that the Wilcox ticket was the only time he placed a call seeking consideration.

Singletary's former assistant has previously testified that Fenton typically called twice a month or more.

When the case finally came before a judge, Singletary found Wilcox not guilty.

Asked Thursday whether Wilcox or his brother ever thanked him for his intervention, Fenton said no.

"Knowing that you helped somebody," he said, "that's satisfaction enough."

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

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