Most with political ties escape testifying in Traffic Court case

Posted: July 14, 2014

Their names - on a government witness list released in May - landed with a thud that sent tongues wagging in Philadelphia political circles.

Federal prosecutors signaled that they would extend grants of immunity to City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and four Democratic ward leaders in exchange for their testimony against five former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges currently on trial for an alleged ticket-fixing conspiracy.

But as the government concluded its case last week, nearly all of those potential witnesses with ties to city politics escaped a stint on the stand. So what happened?

"The government informed us that they were planning on calling Mr. Johnson," Barry Gross, the councilman's lawyer, said Friday. "Then, they told us about two weeks ago they weren't going to."

Among those who have followed the case from City Hall to the courthouse, the speculation as to why continues.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment. Like all of the lawyers in the case, they have been directed by U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel not to discuss the trial in the media.

Gross, a former federal prosecutor, said it is hardly unusual for prosecutors to end up calling only a portion of the people they list as potential witnesses. Government lawyers might decide mid-trial to skip over someone they had intended to call as a means of speeding up a case or to avoid repetitive testimony, he said.

Here, though, the mention of Johnson and others in pretrial court filings - especially with the implication that they might need to protect themselves from prosecution - left some feeling the need to respond publicly.

In a statement released in May, Johnson was quick to say, "I have never sought 'special consideration' or favors from anyone at Traffic Court." He did not return calls for comment last week.

The councilman may not have had the opportunity to repeat that assertion in court, but his name surfaced several times on the lips of other witnesses throughout the government's case.

In May, Tonya Hilton, assistant to former Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary, told jurors that someone from Johnson's office called once seeking special consideration for a traffic ticket received by a constituent. A second time, Johnson called and spoke to Singletary directly.

The judge later "gave me someone's name," Hilton said. "I put it on the calendar for consideration."

The ward leaders - William Dolbow, Michael McAleer, Emilio Vazquez, and Matt Myers - were described by other witnesses as serving in similar middleman roles in the court's "consideration" pipeline.

For his part, Johnson said in his May statement that he remembered calling Traffic Court twice while serving as a state representative - the first time in response to a constituent who received a ticket he deemed unfair, the second on behalf of a man jailed for unpaid fines.

'Nothing I could do'

"I called Traffic Court to determine what he would have to do to get released, and I was told that there was nothing I could do to help him," Johnson said.

To make its case, the government only needs to prove that a ticket holder requested a favor from the court and the judge acted upon that request. So prosecutors may have deemed it unnecessary to call Johnson or the ward leaders to explain what roles they might have played in that process.

John Fenton, longtime aide to Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, did make the cut. Called to testify last month, he said he would often make calls to the court on behalf of constituents.

"I'm the person in the councilwoman's office who helps people navigate through the system," he said. Later, he added, "I still don't think I did anything wrong, to this day."

Fenton's testimony suggests another pitfall prosecutors might have faced had Johnson or the ward leaders testified - the risk of playing into one of the chief arguments of the Traffic Court judges' defense team.

Similar deals

Nearly all of the government's witnesses, from ticket holders to court employees, have testified under similar immunity deals to those offered Johnson and others.

The judges' lawyers have repeatedly pointed to those agreements, contending that their clients were singled out for prosecution while others were allowed to walk free.

"If the government theory is that these judges committed a crime by throwing out tickets and costing the city money, that theory should extend to politicians or party officials who were reaching out to the Traffic Court judges for favors," said veteran defense attorney Jeffrey M. Lindy, echoing arguments the judges' lawyers have made at trial.

Prosecutors have drawn a distinction in court filings between those who cooperated with the investigation and those who did not. Those who told investigators the truth received immunity; those who refused to cooperate stand charged with crimes.

Johnson, meanwhile, stands by his earlier statement, his lawyer said Friday - whether he got a chance to explain it in court or not.

"As a public official, helping constituents get answers is something that I do every day," the statement said. "This is my only connection to the case."


For additional coverage, go to www.inquirer.




comments powered by Disqus