Nine judges who presided at Philadelphia traffic court were charged with fixing tickets for friends and political allies in a sweeping federal indictment that alleged pervasive, but covert, corruption in the courthouse.
Federal officials alleged “a widespread culture of giving breaks on traffic citations to friends, family, the politically connected and business associates,” but defense attorneys suggested the accused made no money from the favors and that the court has worked that way for a century.
The defendants include six current and former Philadelphia traffic court judges and three suburban judges who had stints at the court. Among them is former Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary, who had been kicked out of office for showing cellphone photos of his genitals to a female clerk. Singletary and several others surrendered to the FBI Thursday morning and were due in court Thursday afternoon. A court clerk and two businessmen also were charged.
Philadelphia ward leaders and Democratic City Committee associates, along with family and friends, regularly contacted the judges to seek help with traffic tickets. Judges would trade favors if the case wasn’t assigned to them and would either dismiss or reduce the ticket, helping people avoid points on their licenses, authorities charged.
The judges and their staffs took steps to hide the system of “consideration” by shredding paperwork, speaking in code and keeping a tight circle, according to court papers.
“A well-understood conspiracy of silence fell over the system and its participants,” the indictment said.
The scheme kept unsafe drivers on the road and deprived the city and state of revenues, U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said.
Defense lawyers said their clients never took a dime and simply did things the way they’ve been done for decades – and the way they were trained to do.
“It’s been my experience that any little old lady in the suburbs … can walk in to her local magistrate judge, and expect to get a reduction in her charge,” said Singletary’s lawyer, William J. Brennan. “I don’t think that’s fraud. It’s just kind of the way it works.”
The 77-count indictment also charges Singletary with lying to the FBI and three judges with lying to the grand jury.
Other defendants include sitting judges Michael J. Sullivan, Michael Lowry and Fortunato N. Perri Sr.; former Traffic Court Judges Robert Mulgrew, Thomasine Tynes and Singletary; and former traffic court director William Hird, who retired last year after the investigation broke.
Perri, a senior judge and a longtime fixture at the court, accepted free car repairs, towing, seafood and videos in exchange for help with traffic tickets, the indictment charged.
“When you call, I move, brother, believe me. I move everybody,” he told Henry P. Alfano, a junkyard owner and strip club landlord who provided some of the freebies, the indictment said.
It was not clear who was representing either man, or some of the other defendants. Lowry’s lawyer, Michael Schwartz, declined to comment.
Defense lawyer Gregory Pagano, who represents Hird, said court workers should have been trained in ethics and warned that new policies were being adopted. The elected judges are not lawyers and don’t even need a high school degree, he noted.
“It’s a shame. None of these people were on the take here. Not a person took a single dime. Billy Hird was doing his job as he was taught to do it, and the way it was being done for almost 100 years, really,” Pagano said. “They’ve got to take the fall for everyone who’s come before them. … It’s very unfair.”