One week after the release of a scathing report on the operations of Traffic Court, Administrative Judge Gary S. Glazer promised that structural reforms are coming, but said it will take at least six months.
“This is a very complex organization,” he said. “Changing the culture and how they think will be very challenging. It’s developed over time over many generations.”
The FBI has been investigating Traffic Court since at least September 2011, when the bureau raided court offices and the homes of two judges and a high-ranking employee.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille named Glazer, a Common Pleas Court judge and former assistant U.S. attorney, to oversee the troubled court, which is based at Eighth and Spring Garden streets.
Castille, who lives in Rhawnhurst, commissioned consultant William G. Chadwick Associates Inc. to look into court operations. Chadwick released his 35-page report on Nov. 21.
The biggest finding was that judges found a high percentage of Traffic Court employees and their family members not guilty. While 85 percent of those folks had their tickets forgiven, just 26 percent of the overall public was acquitted from 2009-11.
“The report finds that the judges routinely made, accepted and granted third-party requests for preferential treatment for politically connected individuals with cases in Traffic Court,” Chadwick wrote. “In some cases, judges granted preferential treatment to violators whose identities or connections they knew even if no express request was made.”
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Philadelphia voters elected seven Traffic Court judges. At present, there are just three commissioned judges — Mike Lowry, a Mayfair resident and former aide to state Rep. Mike McGeehan who will be up for retention in 2013; Christine Solomon, a Castor Gardens resident and former Democratic leader of the 53rd Ward; and Mike Sullivan, who was ousted as administrative judge last December in the wake of the FBI probe.
Solomon and Sullivan refused to be interviewed by Chadwick’s team. Lowry cooperated with the review and acknowledged granting special consideration in cases.
The other four spots are vacant. Senior Judge Bernice DeAngelis left the court in April, and Judge Thomasine Tynes retired in July. Judge Robert Mulgrew was suspended without pay in September in an unrelated matter, and Judge Willie Singletary resigned in March after he was accused of showing obscene cell phone photographs of his genitals to a female employee of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
In their absence, cases are being heard by magisterial district judges.
The report said it was evident that seven judges who were sitting regularly at the time of the Sept. 21, 2011, raid are subjects or targets of federal scrutiny. They are Tynes, Sullivan, Lowry, Mulgrew, Singletary, DeAngelis and Senior Judge Warren Hogeland, of Bucks County.
As for the Chadwick report, Traffic Court judges and employees were interviewed. Outsiders were not contacted.
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According to the report, court employees identified the offices of state Sen. Mike Stack, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady as “frequent requestors of special consideration.”
Stack did not return a request for comment from the Times.
Brady said he recalls visiting Traffic Court only twice, more than a decade ago when Frank “Duke” Little was elevated to president judge, and in 2008 when he spoke at the swearing-in ceremonies of Lowry and Mulgrew.
In an interview with the Northeast Times on Friday, the congressman explained that his office receives about one call a month from somebody asking for help to deal with a traffic ticket. The staff directs the caller to one of about a half-dozen lawyers who do pro bono work for the Democratic City Committee, which Brady heads.
“I give you an attorney. You go down with an attorney and are found guilty or not guilty,” he said. “Our office doesn’t call a judge. We never talk with a judge or anybody who works there.”
Lowry, who was unavailable for comment, told Chadwick that all judges were expected to act upon requests for special consideration.
“You have to do what you have to do, just be careful,” DeAngelis, then the administrative judge, told him.
Lowry received a couple of requests per month. Among those making requests, according to the report, were Bill Dolbow, Democratic leader of the 35th Ward; Mike McAleer, Democratic leader of Ward 66-B; and Frank Conaway, former Democratic leader of the 57th Ward.
McAleer, an aide in Stack’s Parkwood office, was unavailable for comment. Dolbow declined to comment. Conaway pointed out that he retired as ward leader just a few months after Lowry took office.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about, honest,” Conaway said.
Lowry acknowledged making a request for special consideration only once, for his nephew. However, his personal assistant, Kevin O’Donnell, told Chadwick that he had made “multiple” requests on behalf of the judge. His account was backed up by other personal assistants.
Lowry told investigators that special consideration has been “blown a little out of proportion even though it’s something we shouldn’t have done.”
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Investigators also questioned Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who lives in Bustleton, over a case involving his wife, Lise Rapaport. Hogeland acquitted her on July 16, 2010, on a charge of driving the wrong way on a one-way street two months earlier.
According to the report, McCaffery sent a text message to Billy Hird, who at the time was the court’s director of operations, on the day of the hearing. Hird escorted Rapaport, who is a lawyer, into the building, then went to see McCaffery, who was in his car.
McCaffery told investigators that, because of rain, there was poor visibility on the night his wife received the ticket, and that she mistakenly turned the wrong way on the 1900 block of Market St. He wanted the case heard by an out-of-county judge because it would be a conflict for a Philadelphia judge to preside. He did not know that Hird was the key contact for politically connected people seeking special consideration.
Though Solomon did not join the court until March, after the report’s review period, she was interviewed three times by investigators because her son was acquitted on 29 of 38 citations between 1998 and 2011.
Solomon was generally uncooperative, though she told investigators that she had made requests for special consideration while a ward leader.
“It’s just politics. That’s all,” she told investigators.
The report did not find that money changed hands, but noted the acquittals saved drivers money in fines, and kept them from possible points and driver’s license suspensions. It is unclear how much money was lost due to so many acquittals.
“I can’t put a dollar figure on it,” Glazer said.
Glazer explained that Traffic Court brings in from $23 million to $24 million a year.
“The money is split by the state and city governments,” he said, adding that some of the revenue goes to the Parking Authority, the court and a collections company.
The report lists three reform options: requiring Traffic Court judges to be lawyers; replacing judges with non-elected administrative hearing officers; and eliminating the court and transferring its jurisdiction to Philadelphia Municipal Court.
The report said the conduct it described was “neither isolated nor recent in origin.” Traffic Court, it said, “has been plagued with allegations of corruption, mismanagement and political influence since its creation in 1938.”
One judge, Hogeland of Bucks County, decided in 2008 that he would no longer grant special consideration, angering Judge DeAngelis. Hogeland told investigators DeAngelis stood up, beat her hands on the table, and said, “I want you to understand. This is Philadelphia. This is the way we do things.” ••