The Philadelphia Bar Association, a state Supreme Court justice and the majority leader of the Pennsylvania Senate are all calling for continued reforms at Philadelphia Traffic Court after a dozen people associated with the troubled court were criminally charged last week.
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday afternoon indefinitely suspended three judges indicted on traffic ticket-fixing charges.
Traffic Court Judges Michael Sullivan and Mike Lowry, along with Mark A. Bruno, a Chester County magisterial district court judge who occasionally hears Traffic Court cases, were relieved of all judicial and administrative duties without pay pending further action by the Supreme Court.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the defendants “participated in a widespread culture of giving breaks on traffic citations to friends, family, the politically connected and business associates.”
The nine individuals charged in a 78-count grand jury indictment are Lowry, a Mayfair resident; Sullivan; Bruno; former Judges Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary and Thomasine Tynes; former director of records Billy Hird; and businessmen Henry P. “Eddie” Alfano and Robert Moy.
Charged by criminal information are former state Rep. and retired Administrative Judge Fortunato N. “Fred” Perri Sr., of Northeast Philadelphia; Delaware County Senior District Judge Kenneth Miller; and Bucks County Senior Magisterial District Judge H. Warren Hogeland.
The suburban judges served varying tenures on Traffic Court by appointment to fill vacancies on the bench.
The charges listed in the indictment include conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, perjury, false statements to the FBI and aiding and abetting.
Perri is charged independently with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and aiding and abetting. He is also mentioned extensively in the indictment as a central figure in the conspiracy.
“Philadelphia ward leaders, local politicians and associates of the Democratic City Committee regularly contacted defendants seeking preferential treatment on specific tickets,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a printed statement. “Additionally, defendants were regularly contacted by family, friends and associates seeking a ‘break’ on tickets. These defendants accepted these requests and either gave the preferential treatment directly or communicated the request to another judge to whom the case was assigned.”
The indictment cites tickets and citations as having been “fixed” by the court between July 2008 and September 2011 in any of several ways, including dismissal, a “not guilty” verdict or a “guilty” verdict to lesser charges, resulting in lesser punishment to the accused traffic violators. Similar ticket fixing likely occurred long before the period observed by the grand jury, according to the indictment.
The charges come two months after the release of a scathing report on court operations. A consultant, hired by the Supreme Court, determined that judges found 85 percent of court employees and their family members not guilty from 2009 to 2011. Just 26 percent of the overall public was acquitted during that time.
Philadelphia voters elect seven Traffic Court judges. Four spots were vacant before the charges were announced. Now that Lowry and Sullivan have been suspended, the only sitting judge is Christine Solomon, a Castor Gardens resident and a former Democratic leader of the 53rd Ward who joined the court last March.
The charges followed an FBI raid of judges’ homes, chambers and Traffic Court offices in September 2011.
Traffic Court, located at 8th and Spring Garden streets, remains open, with newly assigned senior magisterial district judges from various counties appointed to hear cases.
“All citizens appearing in Traffic Court should know that their cases will be fairly heard,” said Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin, the Philadelphia courts’ liaison.
Perri, 76, served in the state House of Representatives for two terms from 1973-76. A Republican at the time, he was defeated by Democrat Bob Borski. He was GOP leader of the Frankford-based 23rd Ward, but provided a key endorsement for Democrat Tina Tartaglione in 1994 when she narrowly defeated Republican Sen. Bruce Marks.
Perri officially became a Democrat and, in 1997, Gov. Tom Ridge appointed him to Traffic Court to fill a vacancy created by the death of Judge Bridget Murray. He served as the court’s administrative judge from 2000 to ’02, retired in 2007 and became a “senior judge,” which enabled him to accept temporary assignments to preside over court cases when asked by the administration.
According to the charging documents, Perri allegedly received free auto repairs and towing services, along with gifts of unspecified video recordings and seafood in exchange for the preferential treatment he arranged for Alfano, a Southwest Philly businessman and former police officer.
Court-authorized intercepted telephone conversations reveal that Perri prioritized assisting Alfano.
“When you call, I move, brother, believe me,” Perri told Alfano.
On another occasion, he told Alfano, “You are in good hands with Allstate.”
Meanwhile, the charging documents claim, Perri hired Hird, 68, to work for Traffic Court in 1997 as the judge’s personal assistant. In 2001, Hird was named the court’s director of records, an administrative position, upon Perri’s recommendation. Hird, who formerly operated a flooring business, earned as much as $80,000 a year in salary from the court and was in line for a pension.
The government alleges that Hird used his position to facilitate Perri’s requests for “consideration.”
“Don’t forget, whenever I call you, it’s really important,” Perri told him in a phone call, according to the indictment.
Brian McMonagle, Perri’s attorney, did not return a call for comment.
Lowry, 58, elected in 2007, allegedly participated in the ticket-fixing by granting preferential treatment in cases recommended to him and by recommending cases to other judges for preferential treatment. The indictment did not identify any specific benefits that Lowry received, but stated that he and other judges granted preferential treatment “because of political support (past, present and future)” that they had received or might receive; as well as business, social or other relationships with the accused traffic violators.
Following the FBI raid, the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of appointing Judge Gary Glazer, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jurist, to serve as administrative judge of the Traffic Court and implement ethical training, hiring based on merit and other reforms.
Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Delaware County Republican, last week reiterated his call to abolish Traffic Court. Philadelphia is the only county in Pennsylvania with a traffic court.
Pileggi described the court as an institution with a “multigenerational tradition of dysfunction.”
“Traffic Court is not worth saving,” he said.
The aforementioned consultant’s report listed 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.
Kathleen D. Wilkinson, chancellor of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association, said it was a “sad day for the justice system in Pennsylvania.”
“These indictments, while allegations are pending, raise serious concerns about equal access to justice for thousands of Philadelphians,” she said. “It is imperative that the Traffic Court’s sitting judges who have been indicted resign immediately to maintain the integrity of our justice system. Any implication of favoritism through a selective meting out of unequal justice merits swift condemnation.”
Authorities released each of the defendants on $20,000 bail, but did not require them to post any cash or assets. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org