Lawmakers in Harrisburg took another step last week toward dismantling the scandal-ridden, corruption-driven Philadelphia Traffic Court when the Senate e unanimously approved a bill to abolish the court and transfer its duties to Municipal Court.
The measure cleared the state House last week by a vote of 114 to 81. Gov. Tom Corbett has indicated he will sign it once it reaches his desk and it will take effect immediately.
Elections for Traffic Court judges set for November will be canceled.
A companion bill, SB 334, approved earlier this month, would amend the state Constitution to formally abolish the court. The process of amending the Constitution requires approval by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions followed by a referendum. Some insiders said that could be an uphill battle.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, who sponsored SB’s 333 and 334, said in a press release, “Through the last 50 years, the Philadelphia Traffic Court has demonstrated a remarkable ability to be the center of scandal after scandal, some criminal in nature and others the result of basic incompetence.
“The court has proven to be immune to all reform efforts. It’s time to do away with this institution.”
Under the measure, the duties of Traffic Court will be folded into the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Two more judge positions will be created and the president judge will have the authority to appoint hearing officers to cover traffic cases.
“There is no objective evidence that the continued existence of the Philadelphia Traffic Court would serve the public interest,” Pileggi said. “No other county has a separate Traffic Court, and whatever reason may have existed in the past for Philadelphia to have a separate Traffic Court no longer exists.”
According to a scathing report commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Traffic Court judges handed out preferential treatment to friends and the politically connected as a matter of routine.
The list of red-flagged judges named in the report included Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge Seamus McCaffery, retired Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, who was also president judge of Traffic Court, Municipal Court Judge Joseph O’Neill Sr., 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 standard 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 ex parte communications among judges, their personal aides and court criers, administrative employees of the court and politically active individuals outside the court.”
State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, D-N. Phila., along with the rest of the city’s caucus in the General Assembly, opposed the legislation.
“I think that what happened in Traffic Court was a disgrace,but there is no need to destroy Traffic Court because of its history of corruption,” Thomas said. “A newsletter issued by state Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille in 2012 also cited problems in the courts from the local to the state level and there was no call for abolishment then. If we’re going to blow up the house in Philadelphia, why not blow it up in other places? Was there a call to eliminate the court in Luzerne County when the ‘kids for cash’ scandal came into the light? Why is it every time it comes to Philadelphia we get treated differently?”
Thomas said folding the duties of Traffic Court into the Municipal Court would overburden that division of the city’s judicial system. He also said that requiring new Traffic Court judges to be members of the Pennsylvania Bar Association would not necessarily mean they would not engage in unethical behavior or misconduct.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth, as we can see with the recent sentencing of Judge Joan Orie Melvin and the past misconduct of other judges on the state Supreme Court,” Thomas said.
Under Thomas’ proposal, Traffic Court masters would be established residents of Philadelphia for at least four years who would run for election to the position.
They would also be required to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, no outstanding parking or moving violations, have a valid driver’s license, pass a certification examination and not have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a criminal offense that is higher than a summary one.
Ethics training would also be required for Traffic Court masters. The term would remain six years, the current term for Traffic Court judges.
“What I proposed is Traffic Court masters that would be limited to being fact-finders instead of Traffic Court judges,” Thomas said. “They would also be elected. Traffic Court masters would only be able to conduct hearings and then would present their findings to Municipal Court for final decision and conclusions of law. My proposal would streamline all cases before Philadelphia Traffic Court without placing an undue burden upon Municipal Court and would not require a constitutional amendment. My proposal would also provide more oversight. Frankly, though there has always been oversight in the Philadelphia Traffic Court it was never exercised because of politics. This could have been done years ago instead of batting the ball back and forth.”
The federal jury that voted in favor of death for drug kingpin Kaboni Savage has voted in favor of life for co-defendant Steven Northington, 41.
Savage was formally sentenced to death earlier this month by U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick. Savage is the first defendant in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to receive the death penalty in federal court.
On May 13, Savage was convicted of 12 counts of murder in aid of racketeering, one count of retaliating against a witness by murder, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, and one count of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise.
Investigators allege that he ordered the Oct. 9, 2004 firebombing of the home of Eugene Coleman’s family. Coleman was a federal witness at the time. Six people were killed in the arson murder, including four children.
The jury had found Northington guilty of the murders of Barry Parker in 2003 and of Tybius Flowers in 2004, in addition to racketeering conspiracy. He will be formally sentenced on June 19.
Co-defendants Kidada Savage, Kaboni Savage’s sister, and Robert Merritt face mandatory life sentences. They were convicted at trial of a RICO conspiracy and Kidada Savage was also convicted of the Coleman family murders.
“Achieving justice sometimes requires us to ask the citizens on a jury to make the most difficult sentencing decision imaginable,” said U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger in an official press release. “In this case, after convicting the defendants of crimes involving murder, the jurors chose death for Kaboni Savage and life for Steven Northington. The defendants’ horrific conduct struck at the very heart of our criminal justice system, which depends on witnesses testifying without fearing for their lives or the lives of their family members. While the verdicts cannot restore the loss of life taken by members of the Kaboni Savage drug organization, we hope that the jury verdicts bring some sense of closure to the victims’ families and friends.”
Savage’s drug enterprise operated primarily in North Philadelphia from at least late 1997 to 2010. After Savage was indicted on drug charges in 2004, he ordered the murders of the family of government witness Eugene Coleman.
Lamont Lewis, who has pleaded guilty, firebombed the Coleman family home on Savage’s orders, which Kidada Savage relayed to him.
School buses vandalized
Philadelphia police are searching for suspects who vandalized 21 buses in the Northeast section of the city over the weekend. Investigators said sometime on Sunday night, the windows of some vehicles were smashed and others had their front ends damaged. The buses serve the Philadelphia School District.
A police officer discovered the damaged buses around 7:15 p.m. Sunday at the lot on the 3800 block of Woodhaven Road.
Two plead guilty in robbery, murder
The jury trial of accused killers Quasheam Richburg and Marvell Hargrove was scheduled to begin on Monday, but the defendants pleaded guilty in the case of a botched robbery that ended in murder.
Richburg, 22, and Hargrove, 19, both pleaded guilty before Judge Linda Carpenter for the May 26, 2011 murder of Moustafa H. Shaker, 50.
Richburg pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, conspiracy, robbery and related offenses in the shooting death of Shaker that happened inside the Trax Food Store. He faces a 30- to 60-year prison term. Hargrove pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy and will serve 20 to 40 years as part of his plea agreement.
When the four story building collapsed at 22nd and Market Streets, it touched off several investigations, a revising of the city’s regulations regarding demolition sites and a lengthening list of questions that have yet to be answered.
And a lot of people want to know exactly why 2234 Market St. caved in — the family and friends of the six people killed; the 14 survivors who were pulled from the rubble, city officials and a host of attorneys are all looking for answers.
This week District Attorney Seth Williams announced the convening of an investigative grand jury to meticulously examine what caused the collapse and who is criminally responsible. Philadelphia City Council has also formed a Special Investigation Committee to run its own probe of the incident.
But while the District Attorney, City Council, OSHA, attorneys for the deceased and the survivors, engineers and other experts examine the evidence, two facts keep coming to the top of the list — it didn’t have to happen, and whoever is found criminally negligent is going to feel the full weight of the legal consequences.
The City of Philadelphia inspector who last visited the site of last week’s building collapse committed suicide Wednesday night.
The 52-year-old Robert Wagenhoffer was discovered about 9 p.m. along the 100 block of Shawmont Avenue, an isolated wooded section of Roxborough. Police say the man parked his pickup truck and sent his wife a text message, then shot himself in the chest. Wagenhoffer, an L&I official with 16-years of experience, was the lead L&I inspector of the site at 22nd and Market Streets. He was pronounced dead the scene, leaving behind a wife and son and more questions regarding the motive for his suicide.
“I will state right here and right now that this man did nothing wrong. The Department did what it was supposed to do under the code that existed at the time,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Everett Gillison during a Thursday morning press conference.
Demolition of any structure is a hazardous job with inherent risks, said Attorney Andrew Duffy, a colleague of Richard Mongeluzzi of the firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky who are representing some of the survivors of the incident. Duffy said that OSHA regulations require an engineering survey of a structure be performed prior to actual demolition. The survey determines the condition of the structure to prevent the premature collapse of any section. The contractor is required to maintain a written copy of the survey. Duffy also disputes the claim put forth by attorneys for contractor Griffin Campbell that the wall was being taken apart brick by brick from the top down.
“Federal OSHA law must be followed to protect workers at the site, nearby buildings and pedestrians. The engineering survey is crucial to the safe demolition process, which is always hazardous,” Duffy said. “I have not seen an engineering survey and no one involved in the demolition stated that they performed an engineering survey. If the wall was being demolished from the top down as alleged, where was the scaffolding or working platforms? There’s no way that was being done. Their whole claim is disputed by the physical evidence.”
According to the OSHA Technical Manual, every demolition contractor must make the appropriate steps and planning to safeguard workers at the site.
“These preparatory operations involve the overall planning of the demolition job, including the methods to be used to bring the structure down, the equipment necessary to do the job, and the measures to be taken to perform the work safely. Planning for a demolition job is as important as actually doing the work. Therefore, all planning work should be performed by a competent person experienced in all phases of the demolition work to be performed,” the manual states.
The OSHA Technical Manual goes on to say that the contractor should plan for the wrecking of the structure, the equipment to do the work, manpower requirements and the protection of the public. The safety of all workers on the job site should be a prime consideration. During the preparation of the engineering survey, the contractor should plan for potential hazards such as fires, cave-ins and injuries.
“OSHA has very specific regulations — and when you’re taking down an unsound structure you really want to ensure the safety of the people working at the site,” said Jay McCalla, former deputy managing director under John Street who also managed the operations of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. “In any demolition operation there are two major considerations; public safety and the safety of the workers. When a building is being demolished it’s supposed to be done like a layer cake; from the top down. The roof, then the walls, then the floors, section by section until you reach ground level. It’s a very slow process. In this case there was one four-story unsupported brick wall; there’s no way that wall wasn’t coming down. It was either going to fall backward or it was going to fall forward — but an unsupported four-story brick wall was going to fall. I don’t know what the condition of the building was or how old it was but anything that tall, with no support was going to collapse.”
On June 7, just two days after the collapse, Mayor Michael A. Nutter and the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) announced new initiatives for demolition sites and contractors, including new standards for demolition permit issuance and demolition site inspection, new internal audit processes, and recommendations for code and regulatory changes.
“The City and the Department of Licenses and Inspections are dedicated to building and construction safety and to the safety of all of citizens of the City of Philadelphia,” said Mayor Nutter in a press release. “After the tragic events it is necessary to implement the same heightened controls on private demolition activity that we have on public demolitions to ensure continued safety.”
All new permit applications for complete demolition must include the following documents and requirements prior to issuance of the permit: Details on the experience and qualifications of the contractor performing the demolition including demolition experience of the owner and the company.
A site-safety plan detailing how the contractor proposes to protect pedestrians and adjacent properties.
A schedule of the demolition work. Contractor will show length of time for each stage of the project.
Professional Engineer’s report on adjacent property protection for demolition of commercial buildings above three stories.
No active violations for contractor and review of all previous violations.
“In my OSHA experience, the federal inspectors busted us over a four-foot wall. Now you might not think a four-foot wall is a problem but that’s the kind of standard we had to adhere to during the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative,” McCalla said. “We made sure the demolition sites were as safe as possible. It’s not just about wearing hard hats but even the kind of boots the workers at the site had to wear in case they stepped on a nail. A demolition is perilous at every turn. OSHA has very specific regulations as to how demolitions are to be done and any revisions the city is implementing should reflect the OSHA standard, which is the gold standard. If it falls short of OSHA, it’s playing around.”
After an intense investigation, the Philadelphia Police Department has arrested a suspect in a series of armed robberies in Philadelphia and nearby counties.
Steven Akins, 25, from the 3200 block of Miller Street, was arrested in connection with a robbery that occurred in the Rittenhouse section of the city. On May 21, 2013, at 4:40 p.m., an unknown male, later identified as Akins, allegedly entered the CVS Pharmacy located at 2132 South Street. After waiting approximately 10 minutes the suspect approached the pharmacy counter and handed the pharmacist a threatening note demanding narcotics while pointing a handgun. After taking an undisclosed amount of narcotics the suspect fled south on the 600 block of South 22nd Street then west on the west on the 2200 block of Kater Street. The suspect then discarded his red Phillies hooded sweatshirt and fled in a waiting dark blue mini-van.
After the investigation of a series of gunpoint robberies in Philadelphia, Bristol Township and Delaware County, detectives were able to identify Akins as the suspect in the last robbery. On June 6, 2013, Akins was arrested as the suspect for this robbery. He has been charged with robbery and related offenses.
Alleged Mafioso Pleads Guilty
The United States Attorney’s Office said that Robert Ranieri, 37, of Glendora, N.J., pleaded guilty on Friday to committing loan sharking activities on behalf of the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra Family. U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno scheduled a sentencing hearing for Sept. 25, 2013. Ranieri faces a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison. Through court documents and statements made in court, Ranieri admitted that he conspired with alleged Philadelphia Mafia capo Anthony Staino and others to make a usurious loan to an undercover FBI agent and used threats of violence to collect payments on the loan.
According to the indictment against Ranieri, during the summer of 2004, Staino agreed that he would lend $25,000 to an undercover agent who agreed to pay $3,000 a month in interest for the loan. During a conversation recorded in the basement bathroom of the Chop House restaurant in Gibbsboro, New Jersey, Staino and Ranieri allegedly threatened to “hurt” the agent, known to them as “Dino” if he didn’t abide by the terms of the loan.
The scale and scope of the tragic building collapse last week in Center City increased this week when the building inspector who last visited the site at 22nd and Market Streets took his own life Wednesday night.
Robert Wagenhoffer, 52, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest around 9 p.m., according to Northwest Detectives. The 16-year veteran of the Department of Licenses and Inspections was found in his vehicle on the 100 block of Shawmont Avenue in Roxborough by a pedestrian who called 911.
“We are a city in deep and profound mourning,” said Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, Everett Gillison at a press conference Thursday morning. “With the building collapse a week ago, we now have lost seven lives in connection with this tragedy.”
Six people were killed and thirteen others were injured when the building located at 2234 Market Street collapsed while under demolition. Wagenhoffer was the last official from the Department of Licenses and Inspection to visit the site and Gillison said that everyone knew he had taken the tragedy hard. He didn’t take a leave of absence and worked a full shift the day of the tragedy.
“Everybody handles grief differently,” Gillison said, politely refusing to speculate as to why Wagenhoffer would take his own life. “But the way that he was doing his job, he was handling it the way they thought he would be handling it, which was to work even harder. I will state right here and right now that this man did nothing wrong. The Department did what it was supposed to do under the code that existed at the time.”
Documents released by the Nutter Administration on June 6 show the permit for demolition was issued on February 1 and on February 12 was inspected by Wagenhoffer. His notes indicate notice of demolition letters were given to adjoining properties and the permit gave a start date of February 22. Wagenhoffer returned to the site on May 14 to follow up on a complaint that there was no contractor name visible on the permit. No violations were found and Wagenhoffer noted that the complaint was unfounded.
But as investigators and engineers examine the rubble of the collapse site, the fallout from the tragedy continues to raise more questions of exactly who is responsible.
“It was shocking to learn today from counsel for the demolition contractor that the building owner and owner of the contracting company were on site the day of this tragedy yet failed to observe and correct the obvious safety hazards,” said attorney Richard Mongeluzzi of the firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky who are representing survivors of the incident. “This underscores that the safety failures on this project occurred from the top down, at all levels of the safety hierarchy.”
Kenneth Edelin, attorney for Griffin Campbell, the contractor running the demolition and Daine Grey, defense attorney for defendant Benschop both say their clients aren’t responsible for what happened.
“They had to blame somebody, so they picked the lowest person on the totem pole,” Grey said in a published report, adding that his client has become the scapegoat in the case. “My client followed the directions he was given, 100 percent.”
The District Attorney’s Office charged Benschop with six counts of involuntary manslaughter, 13 counts of recklessly endangering another person, and risking a catastrophe.
--The Associated Press contributed to this report.