Nine current or former Philadelphia Traffic Court judges were charged today with conspiracy and fraud after a three-year FBI probe into ticket-fixing in the beleaguered court.
A 77-count indictment, returned Tuesday but sealed until Thursday, said judges and their assistants routinely shredded documents, used code words and practiced “a well-understood conspiracy of silence” that turned the court into two systems: One where the average citizen paid for their infractions, while the connected saw tickets disappear, costing the Commonwealth an untold amount.
“For years, even beyond the conspiracy charged, there existed a culture of ticket fixing at Traffic Court,” the indictment said. “The ticket fixing was pervasive and frequent.”
Charged were two of the court’s three sitting judges, Michael Lowry and Michael Sullivan, as well as seven former judges: Fortunato Perri Sr., Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary and Thomasine Tynes, elected by Philadelphia voters.
The other three were former suburban district judges who were appointed to serve for a period of time in Philadelphia Traffic Court: Mark A. Bruno of a Chester County, H. Warren Hogeland of Bucks County, and Kenneth Miller of Delaware County.
Unlike those who were indicted Thursday, Hogeland, Miller and Perri were charged separately by informations. The process is typically used for defendants who have agreed to plead guilty.
Also indicted were Traffic Court administrator William Hird; and two local businessmen, Henry P. Alfano and Robert Moy. Alfano owned a towing service that won a no-bid contract from traffic court.
Each are scheduled to appear before a magistrate judge Thursday afternoon. U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger will hold a news conference later today.
Hird declined to comment as he left the federal building this morning, but his lawyer, Greg Pagano, told reporters: “My client is a taxpaying, hardworking citizen who goes to work every day and who is being indicted essentially for doing his job.”
Singletary, who also turned himself in, told reporters only: “My God is able.”
Traffic court has for decades been seen as a patronage mill. Judges earn at least $85,000, and must win election but none do so without the blessing of the local political parties. The court has twice before been the focus of federal probes.
The latest conspiracy and fraud charges uncorked a case that had been bubbling for at least three years, and included raids and, apparently, secret FBI wiretaps.
U.S. Attorney Zane D. Memeger said the system in Traffic Court not only deprived taxpayers of fines that should have gone to the city and state, it completely undermined public confidence in the institution.
“Those who seek to game the system by refusing to follow the rules need to be held accountable by the rule of law they swore to uphold,” Memeger said in a press release.
A preview emerged last fall, when a consultant commissioned by Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, concluded there was a pervasive culture of corruption within Traffic Court.
That report, prepared by former city prosecutor William G. Chadwick, cited eight former or current judges, and described Hird as the central coordinator for ticket-fixing, or, as the judges called it “consideration.”
The indictment went farther, spelling out in detail how friends, associates and ward leaders arranged to get cases dismissed or fines dropped.
In return, the judges allegedly got more than good will. According to the indictment, Perri accepted free auto services, towing, landscaping, and even a load of shrimp and crab cakes from Alfano, whose company, Century Motors, ran a towing service.
“I see Century on it, it’s gold,” Perri once told Alfano, according to the indictment. “When you call, I move, brother, believe me.”
In February 2010, the indictment said, Alfano called on behalf of a truck driver who faced $442 in fines and court costs after being ticketed along I-95 for not clearing the snow and ice off his tractor-trailer. Twice the drive got notices that his license would be suspended.
“It will be alright, don’t worry about it,” Perri allegedly assured Alfano.
Two months later, the case landed before Sullivan. The driver didn’t even attend the hearing, and was deemed not guilty, the indictment said.
Hird and Singletary are accused of lying to FBI agents, while Mulgrew, Tynes and Lowry are charged with perjury before the Grand Jury.
“You don’t give out special favors, is that right?” a prosecutor asked Lowry before the grand jury in fall 2011, according to the indictment.
“No, I treat everybody the same,” he replied.
Singletary resigned last year in an unrelated scandal, after a court staffer accused him of showing her a picture of his genitals on his cellphone.
Mulgrew was indicted in a separate federal corruption case, charged with defrauding an neighborhood nonprofit.
The Republican floor leader of the state Senate, Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, said the Traffic Court indictments boosted his resolve to pass legislation abolishing the court.
“They confirm my opinion that the Traffic Court is not an institution that has any reason to continue to exist,” Pileggi told reporters in a conference call. “They accelerate the urgency of enacting the reforms that I proposed.”
Since proposing the court’s abolition three weeks ago, Pileggi said, he had yet to hear from a single state lawmaker or other public official defending the court.
“I would have expected at least a handful of people who would have tried to present some defense of the status quo,” Pileggi said. “I’m pleased with that, because I think the status quo is indefensible.”