Former Traffic Court judges cleared on main charge

Mark A. Bruno, a Chester County district judge who used to fill in at Traffic Court, leaves after being acquitted. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Mark A. Bruno, a Chester County district judge who used to fill in at Traffic Court, leaves after being acquitted. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 25, 2014

Philadelphia Traffic Court's entrenched system of granting special consideration to friends, family, and political allies of judges may have been unethical, but it wasn't a crime, a federal jury appeared to say Wednesday as it acquitted five of the court's former jurists who were accused of participating in a ticket-fixing conspiracy.

The verdict capped a five-year probe that took aim at the city's reputation as "corrupt and contented," and that led to the dismantling of the court - but its outcome called into question future government efforts to prosecute corruption where no bribery is involved.

Defense lawyers described the jury's finding as a "complete repudiation" of the prosecution's case - which was built on the argument that even without money changing hands, the granting of special favors from the bench robbed the city and state of hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrealized fines.

"Not one dime traded hands here, not a baseball ticket, not a glass of wine," said William J. Brennan Jr., lawyer for former Judge Willie Singletary. "These were ethical violations. Maybe there was wrongdoing, but no criminal activity."

Jurors took only a day and a half to find Singletary and Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, and Thomasine Tynes not guilty on counts of conspiracy and wire and mail fraud.

However, the panel convicted all but Sullivan of perjury before the grand jury or lying to federal investigators - felony charges that carry potential prison sentences of up to five years.

But for the five former judges, many of whom lost their jobs during the five-year FBI investigation, Wednesday's verdict, no matter how qualified, offered some vindication.

Used to presiding over their own courtrooms, they found themselves in the uncomfortable position of sitting at the defendant's table as court staff, friends, and in some cases family members testified against them throughout the two-month trial.

Some perched on the edge of their seats as the jury filed in to deliver its decision just before noon.

As the first of the "not guilty" verdicts was announced, Lowry, a product of the Northeast, could be heard across the courtroom muttering "Jesus Christ" in relief.

"I'm grateful to my God," said Singletary, a West Philadelphia pastor first elected to Traffic Court in his 20s, after the full verdict was read. "It's been two years of stress. I'm just grateful for the process. It worked."

Sullivan, a South Philadelphia tavern owner and former ward leader, hurried from the courtroom, pausing only to say, "As far as I'm concerned, I was indicted for doing my job."

Reaction was no less muted from the trial's two lesser-known defendants.

Chester County District Judge Mark A. Bruno was acquitted of charges in connection with his regular stints filling in at the court. He said he would ask state judicial authorities to revoke a suspension it imposed after his indictment last year.

"I just want to get back, serve the people of my district, and move forward with my life," he said.

Paul Hetznecker, lawyer for Robert Moy, a Chinatown court translator accused of conspiring with judges to have his clients' cases dismissed, said the 57-year-old looked forward to returning to his normal life after three years of tumult. Moy and his 95-year-old mother have been sleeping in his office since the 2011 FBI raid on their home out of fear that agents might return, he said.

"Tonight he gets to sleep at home without that worry," Hetznecker said.

Among the elation, some expressed confusion over the split verdict. But the acquittals on the main counts and the convictions for perjury and false statements appeared to reflect a larger defense narrative presented throughout the trial.

Prosecutors Anthony Wzorek and Denise Wolf painted Traffic Court as a judicial system tainted by rampant cronyism, where judges routinely passed requests for "consideration" between chambers.

Lawyers for the judges sidestepped that issue, rarely denying such conduct took place. Instead, they argued that their clients' ethical lapses belonged before a judicial conduct board and not a criminal court.

The jury's verdict on the primary charges suggested it found that argument convincing. But when it came to the judges' statements to FBI agents and testimony before the grand jury, some of the judges set out to mislead, the panel found.

Tynes, for instance, was asked during her 2011 grand jury appearance whether she had ever been asked for favorable treatment on a case. She said no.

For the government, the jury's reasoning registered as a considerable loss - but one with significant asterisks.

The 2011 FBI raid on Traffic Court's Eighth and Spring Garden Street offices prompted the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to launch its own investigation of the court. The findings of that probe, which largely mirrored the federal indictment, propelled efforts among state lawmakers to dismantle the court last year.

It has since been replaced with a traffic division within Municipal Court, staffed by city prosecutors and nonelected hearing officers.

Of those indicted in the federal case, five pleaded guilty prior to trial - including Fortunato Perri Sr., Traffic Court's former chief judge.

Perri admitted accepting bribes of seafood, car repairs, and porn from a South Philadelphia businessman in exchange for fixing tickets. But trial testimony made clear that the FBI struggled in trying to link the other judges to a similar quid pro quo.

In one incident, an undercover FBI agent approached Sullivan at his South Philadelphia bar and offered him cash to dismiss a traffic ticket. The judge rejected the offer.

That failed attempt to snare him underlined the difficulties faced by prosecutors in bringing the case to trial. As the investigation progressed, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision that forced them to change course.

Deciding the case of former Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, the high court ruled in 2010 that honest-services fraud - the federal statute typically used to prosecute corruption cases - only pertains to bribery and kickback schemes.

Without such evidence in the Traffic Court case, prosecutors adopted the unusual theory that the Traffic Court judges had committed mail and wire fraud by using the electronic systems that record all of the court's decisions as part of a scheme that also deprived the government of fine money.

Tynes' attorney Louis R. Busico balked at that argument during his closing arguments to jurors last week.

He asked jurors to consider whether a shop clerk would be guilty of theft for giving a store discount to a friend, or a driver guilty of fraud for flashing his headlights to warn others of a speed trap he just passed.

In both examples, the lawyer maintained, no one set out to cheat anyone out of money.

William McSwain, lawyer for Bruno, said Wednesday's verdict demonstrated the difficulty of prosecuting cases in which official actions are not traded for money or gifts, but simply to reward or curry favor with the powerful.

"I don't think you're going to see another case like this for a while," he said.

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger remained resilient.

"We respect the jury's verdict in this case," he said, "and will continue our efforts to root out corruption in Philadelphia and this district."



Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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