Traffic ticket-fixing has always been suspected in Philadelphia, but with the release of an investigative report commissioned by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, what has been suspected was dragged out into a glaring spotlight.
At least 10 sitting or former Traffic Court judges could face disciplinary actions for their connection to what could be termed as an internal system of traffic ticket -fixing. The report details an alleged behind-the-chambers culture that turned a blind eye to the infractions of the well-heeled politically connected crowd, but enforced the laws vigorously when it came to the less fortunate.
The list of red-flagged judges named in the report includes state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, retired Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, Municipal Court Judge Joseph O’Neill Sr., former Judge Willie Singletary, who was already under investigation for allegedly sending explicit photos of himself to a staff member, and retired Judge Bernice DeAngelis.
The study conducted by Chadwick Associates, Inc. found that the judges named in the study “routinely made, accepted and granted third-party requests for preferential treatment for politically connected individuals.”
“In some cases, judges granted preferential treatment to violators whose identities or connections they knew even if no expressed request was made,” wrote William G. Chadwick in the report’s overview, which was sent to Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer on Nov. 19. “These practices violated established standards of conduct for the minor judiciary, and resulted in a court with a two-track system of justice; one for the politically connected and another for the unwitting general public. These practices were facilitated via ex parte communications among judges, their personal aides and court criers, administrative employees of the court and politically active individuals outside the court.”
According to the report, Judges Michael Sullivan and Christine Solomon declined to be interviewed for the study. Judge Michael Lowry, on the other hand, cooperated and not only admitted to his participation in the system of preferential treatment, but implicated colleagues. Also named in the report were the offices of state Sen. Mike Stack, Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who were allegedly frequent requestors of special treatment but were not interviewed for the report.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Brady regarding the allegations. “Neither my staff members or myself have ever requested any kind of special privileges in Traffic Court. What we do if any staff member is ticketed for a violation is provide an attorney who is present with them at the hearing. I take issue with a court employee mentioning my name and having my name included in the report. We have attorneys who do this work pro bono. No one on my staff ever contacted any judge to ask for special privileges – and you can rest assured that we are looking into this. Also, no one conducting this study ever spoke to me. In fact, I was ticketed for running a red light in 2010 after leaving a meeting with Mayor Nutter at City Hall. The traffic light camera snapped a picture of my car and an officer flagged me down and gave me a ticket, which I paid. I still have the stub. I find this very disturbing.”
According to the report, requests for special consideration were made either to the judges directly, personal staff members or court criers. Interviewers allege that the system for accessing preferential treatment was partially centralized four years ago when William Hird, former director of courtroom operations, began acting as the point man for the requests. Chadwick’s interviewers said Hird would take phone calls about a particular case, access the computer files, print the court dockets and make handwritten notes on the sheet which was then delivered to the judge hearing the case.
“The special consideration granted by judges ranged from outright acquittals and dismissals to amendments of the citation downgrading the offense to a charge carrying fewer demerit points on the offender’s driving record,” Chadwick said in the report, stating that 22 employees admitted to having knowledge of the practice. “Some personals questioned whether the requests affected the outcomes of the cases, citing the broad discretion that judges have in making decisions. In addition, neither Judge Warren Hogeland nor Lowry, both of whom admitted participating in the practice, could identify a single judge who did not participate. They both related that DeAngelis, who was the administrative judge when they first sat in Traffic Court, discussed the practice with them and led them to believe their participation was expected. Judge Bob Mulgrew was less forthcoming but conceded that special consideration was a part of the culture at Traffic Court.”
Chadwick said in the report that his office’s review was able to identify 18 cases with a total of 26 tickets either involving Traffic Court employees or their family members with cases handled by Tynes, who retired from the bench on July 3, 2012 following a medical leave of absence. The report cited a particular case involving a judge from another court who allegedly ran a red light and was recorded by a traffic light camera.
“The evidence included three photographs clearly showing the car proceeding through a red light,” Chadwick wrote. “Hird came in to the courtroom and requested that Judge Tynes give the judge special consideration. Judge Tynes then walked the judge through a series of leading questions designed to elicit responses that would support a reversal. Following the hearing in which the conviction was reversed, Hird greeted the violator outside the courtroom and both left together. Court records reflect that on Aug. 3, 2011, Judge Tynes reversed a guilty verdict for Joseph J. O’Neill, Sr. for a red light camera ticket, citing weather conditions as the basis for the reversal.”