Philadelphia Traffic Court Abolished; Seven Judges Convicted
The first black woman to be named president judge of Philadelphia’s Traffic Court has been sentenced to two years in federal prison in connection with a widespread ticket-fixing scandal that also led to the convictions or guilty pleas of six other judges. Another Traffic Court judge charged in the case was acquitted at trial.
At her sentencing hearing on December 5, 2014, former judge Thomasine Tynes, 71, became the first member of the court to publicly admit that she had participated in fixing traffic tickets for family members, friends and political allies for the entire 20 years she served on the bench.
“I didn’t invent the system at Traffic Court,” she explained, tearfully. “I went along to get along.”
Tynes’ admission marked a stunning reversal of her previous comments. When she and the other defendants were first charged with conspiracy, perjury and mail and wire fraud on January 31, 2013, Tynes maintained in an interview with the PhiladelphiaDaily News that she was innocent, insisting she never took money to fix a traffic case.
“It’s devastating to me, mentally and physically,” she stated at the time. “I had a gorgeous reputation. I’m ruined by this.”
At her sentencing hearing, Tynes’ attorney, Louis R. Busico, offered an even more surprising confession: “These guys were fixing tickets from square one,” he said. “We got lucky at trial. The evidence was overwhelming.” Tynes was convicted of perjury but acquitted on the other charges.
Tynes’ conviction in the Traffic Court scandal was not her only legal problem. She had entered into a plea agreement to cooperate with an investigation being conducted by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams arising from a sting operation in which Tynes and four state legislators were recorded on tape allegedly accepting bribes from an undercover informant. In return for Tynes’ cooperation, prosecutors agreed to not seek any additional prison time beyond the two-year sentence she received for her perjury conviction.
The first judge to be sentenced in the case, Robert Mulgrew, 57, was ordered to serve 18 months in federal prison. At a December 3, 2014 sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Stengel said Mulgrew’s conviction on perjury charges was a “capstone” on a career “marked by regular and willing participation in a pervasive system of corruption.”
Mulgrew’s defense attorney told Judge Stengel that the system in place at the Traffic Court was initiated by past judges, that Mulgrew had merely participated and that his actions had not damaged the court.
Mulgrew was already behind bars serving a 30-month sentence for defrauding a south Philadelphia non-profit organization of more than $230,000 in government funds earmarked for improvements to a neighborhood park. His 18-month sentence will be added to his existing prison term.
Tynes, Mulgrew and former Traffic Court judges Michael Lowry and Willie Singletary were convicted of perjury on July 23, 2014 for lying to the grand jury or FBI in an attempt to cover up their part in what prosecutors called a pattern of “consideration” – granting special treatment to friends, family members and political cronies that routinely led to traffic citations being dismissed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf had requested that each defendant be punished by terms of two to three years in prison. “For a judge to give preferential treatment to certain litigants because of their social and political connections turns the system on its head,” she wrote in a sentencing memo to the district court. “For that judge then to cover up his wrongdoing by lying in another judicial proceeding is unconscionable.”
Former Traffic Court judge Michael J. Sullivan was acquitted of all charges at trial, as were Chester County judge Mark A. Bruno and businessman Robert Moy.
Three other former judges, Fortunato N. Perri, Sr., H. Warren Hogeland and Kenneth Miller, pleaded guilty prior to trial. Miller was sentenced in January 2015 to one year of probation and a $1,000 fine; Hogeland died prior to being sentenced and Perri’s sentencing hearing is scheduled in March 2015. The Traffic Court’s former director of records, William Hird, also pleaded guilty, as did businessman and former police officer Henry P. Alfano. Hird received two years in prison and a $5,000 fine, while Alfano, who reportedly provided pornography and seafood to Perri in return for favors, including a no-bid Traffic Court contract for a friend, has not yet been sentenced.
The ticket-fixing investigation began in September 2011 when FBI agents raided the homes and offices of several Traffic Court officials, prompting Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille to hire a consulting firm, Chadwick Associates, as part of a probe launched three months later.
Chadwick Associates reported in November 2012 that the Traffic Court had a “two-track system of justice, one for the politically connected and another for the unwitting general public.” It was judge Michael Lowry who admitted to a system of special treatment for the politically connected and “implicated other judges.”
The consulting firm reported that former Traffic Court judge Bernice DeAngelis, who was not indicted, had ordered another judge to grant political favors in cases during the time she was an administrative judge. DeAngelis then served as a senior judge until she was dismissed from the bench in April 2012.
Chadwick Associates reported that 22 Traffic Court employees said special treatment was common, and 19 stated they “could not identify a single judge who did not participate” in fixing traffic tickets. The court was an “intensely political environment,” the report found, and jobs at the court depended on connections and partisan politics.
Federal prosecutors could not substantiate that bribes changed hands, prompting them to pursue conspiracy, perjury, and mail and wire fraud charges against the judges instead. In the case presented to the jury, the U.S. Attorney argued that because fines assessed by the dismissed traffic tickets went unpaid, the judges had intentionally deprived the city and state of money.
“The charges didn’t quite fit,” said juror Kathryn Lund in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, leading the panel to acquit the defendants of all charges except perjury. “The idea that they were willfully defrauding the government didn’t seem to be their intent.”
Lund added, however, that the acquittal on some of the charges should not be viewed as vindication for the judges. “Clearly, they skirted the law, and clearly, they tried to cover up what was going on,” she emphasized.
The federal district court agreed. “The evidence at trial demonstrated very clearly that defendants were influenced by ‘extrajudicial communications’ when reaching their decisions on select tickets,” wrote Judge Stengel in denying requests from the defendants for new trials. “In short, they and their colleagues were fixing tickets.” See: United States v. Sullivan, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:13-cr-00039.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court – over the objection of Chief Justice Castille – awarded Judge Michael Sullivan back pay dating from his suspension and future pay until his term expires in December 2017. In a decision handed down on November 18, 2014, the Court said the order “recognizes petitioner’s subsequent acquittal of all such charges.”
In his dissent, Justice Castille argued that restoring Sullivan’s pay mistakenly implied that the state Supreme Court had laid the matter to rest. “I respectfully dissent because I do not believe that the federal acquittal puts an end to the inquiry involving misconduct, either as an administrative matter or as a disciplinary matter,” he wrote. See: In re Sullivan, 104 A.3d 323 (Pa. 2014).
Former Traffic Court judge Michael Lowry, 59, was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison on January 14, 2015. He must also serve one year on supervised release and perform 100 hours of community service. Former judge Willie Singletary, 33, convicted of perjury, has not yet been sentenced. He resigned from the bench in February 2012 – not due to the ticket-fixing scandal, but following his suspension for showing a cell phone photo of his genitals to a female employee. That led Pennsylvania’s Court of Judicial Discipline to find that he had brought his office into disrepute, because members of the public “do not expect their judges to be conducting photo sessions featuring the judicial penis.”
Governor Tom Corbett signed a bill into law in June 2013 (SB 334) that eliminated Philadelphia’s Traffic Court; cases previously handled by the court will be transferred to a new Traffic Division in Municipal Court. Apparently, the only way to end the pervasive corruption in the Traffic Court was to abolish it.
Sources: Associated Press, www.philly.com, Philadelphia Inquirer, www.abc27.com, www.abovethelaw.com, www.lawreport.org, www.pennrecord.com, www.law360.com, www.delcotimes.com, www.fbi.gov
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Related legal case
United States v. Sullivan
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (E.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:13-cr-00039|