Fictitious case to snare judge was elaborate

Judge Dawn A. Segal was allegedly asked for help by Judge Joseph C. Waters. Now facinga probe, she denies wrongdoing.
Judge Dawn A. Segal was allegedly asked for help by Judge Joseph C. Waters. Now facinga probe, she denies wrongdoing.
Posted: September 29, 2014

On paper, David P. Khoury's case appeared like any of the hundreds that make their way through Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center each day.

Arrested for illegally carrying an unloaded Glock .40-caliber pistol during a May 2012 traffic stop in Holmesburg, Khoury was booked on felony charges and released on a $50,000 bond to begin his slow march through the cogs of the courts.

But that's where the similarities end.

On paper, Khoury's case appeared routine. Yet, as federal court documents now reveal, on paper was the only place Khoury existed.

Last week, authorities identified David P. Khoury as the alias used by an undercover federal agent working as part of an elaborate sting operation to take down a corrupt Philadelphia judge.

The Khoury identity was fabricated, his gun arrest staged, and the criminal charges against him set up - all to test whether Municipal Judge Joseph C. Waters could be induced to influence the case as a favor to a campaign donor.

Waters pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal mail-fraud and wire-fraud charges stemming in part from a phone call he made to the judge who presided over part of the Khoury case. That judge, Dawn A. Segal, has been pulled from the bench by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, pending an investigation by the state's Judicial Conduct Board.

Asked about the Khoury case Friday, Waters' attorney, Michael J. Engle, said: "As I understand it, none of it was real. This whole sting was orchestrated."

While federal authorities have in the past turned to staged prosecutions to root out corruption in the judicial system, the practice remains relatively rare as the technique can raise complex ethical quandaries about tampering with the legal system.

When federal agents sent corrupt, fur-coated defense lawyer Barry H. Denker into the field wearing a wire in the late '80s to help convict three Philadelphia judges on the take, they first sought the OK of FBI directors in Washington. And the defendants in those cases were real people facing real charges.

Other times, the strategy doesn't quite work as planned. Hoping to catch former Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Michael J. Sullivan in accepting a bribe to fix traffic tickets, investigators staged a fake citation for an undercover agent. Sullivan, who was acquitted this year on corruption charges, rejected the man's offer of a $200 kickback.

While prosecutors declined to discuss the specific preparations they took in creating the Khoury case, Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, said the FBI and federal prosecutors routinely consult with their higher-ups in Washington before taking on sensitive undercover operations.

"Depending on the particular circumstances of such operations, relating to the length, sensitivity, and the potential danger," she said, "approvals are required from FBI headquarters and the Department of Justice."

Just another case

For the local prosecutors who worked for a brief time in 2012 to put Khoury behind bars and the defense lawyers working to keep him out, his felony gun charges were just another case. Most barely remembered the man two years on. None were in on the ruse.

"I'd have to go back and look at the file," said Assistant District Attorney Ebonie Branch, reached last week. "I honestly don't remember it."

Same goes for William J. Brennan, a prominent Center City defense lawyer who at one point served as Khoury's counsel. He declined to otherwise discuss the case.

The public records of Khoury's case offer some clues.

Forty years old and driving a black Infiniti SUV with Virginia plates at the time of his arrest, Khoury told officers he did not know his address and had no phone.

He told probation officers he hailed from Louisville, Ky., yet the Social Security number he gave them appeared to have been issued in Texas in 1988.

He had listed addresses at a ritzy Rittenhouse Square high-rise and a sprawling apartment complex off City Avenue as well as a more modest apartment mixed in among Cedar Park's African and Caribbean immigrant community.

As for his case, when he failed to appear on his scheduled November 2012 trial date, court staff reported they had no address on file for him, and his charges were simply dropped.

But it was the events that came before that dismissal that prompted Khoury's creation.

'Anything you need'

By that point, FBI agents were deep into their investigation of Judge Waters.

He had attracted federal scrutiny for his involvement in a civil case involving a close political ally.

Investigators hoped that by using a campaign donor - who was by then helping the FBI's sting - they could draw Waters out and catch him in the act of manipulating the justice system for his friends.

According to Waters' plea documents, the donor, unnamed in court filings, first mentioned the Khoury case to the judge in 2012 and described the man as a cousin of a business associate.

Waters was only too eager to help. Upon receiving a $1,000 cash campaign donation from the same donor two years earlier, he had pledged he would do anything he could to help in the future.

"You run into a problem with any of your people, you get ahold of me," Waters is quoted as saying in court filings. "Anything I can do to help you or anybody that you're interested in, all you do is pick up the phone and call me."

The police report on the Khoury arrest details a straightforward set of facts. Arresting officer John L. Snyder pulled Khoury over in May 2012 for weaving across the center line on a busy stretch of Torresdale Avenue.

"When I approached the window, I asked him for his information," Snyder would testify at a later hearing in the case. "I noticed a black handgun on the floor mat area. I asked if he had a license to carry. He said no."

It remains unclear whether Snyder was in on the FBI's ruse. Contacted at home last week, he declined to comment about the case.

Khoury was charged with carrying a firearm without a license - a felony - and scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing that July.

After his campaign donor's request, Waters placed a call to Municipal Court Judge Segal, who was scheduled to hear the case.

Identifying Khoury as "a friend," Waters asked Segal to "help him," according to Waters' plea document.

He also recommended a lawyer, Brennan, who would later represent Waters himself during part of the federal investigation.

Reduced charge

And while Municipal Court transcripts of Khoury's July 24, 2012, preliminary hearing do not contain the arguments lawyers presented before Segal, the court's dockets show she reduced the charge Khoury faced to a misdemeanor with far less risk of a prison sentence.

Federal prosecutors have since described her ruling as one without "a proper legal basis." But there is no indication that she will be charged criminally.

In an interview last week, Segal's lawyer, Stuart L. Haimowitz, said his client made the ruling she thought was right at the time.

"She believed that her decision was the correct one," he said. "Whether it was a real case or a fake case, she would have ruled the same way."

As for Khoury, all traces of the mythical man dried up after his case was dismissed. In the end, his existence was paper-thin.

These days, residents at his listed Rittenhouse address offer blank expressions at the mention of his name. Neighbors at his Cedar Park apartment say they have never heard of the man.

All that remains, it seems, is the manila court file that now sits on an office shelf in the Criminal Justice Center detailing his short life as a made-up defendant in a made-up case - a file now affixed with a single green Post-it note.

It reads: "Withdrawn - FBI."


INSIDE

Waters' crimes go to the heart of the problem with judicial elections. Editorial, C4.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649

@jeremyrroebuck

Inquirer staff writers Craig R. McCoy, Dylan Purcell, and Robert Kandel contributed to this article.

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