Prosecutors told jurors in federal court Tuesday in the Philadelphia Traffic Court case that the defendants were responsible for creating a culture of favoritism that, through fixing tickets, robbed the city and Pennsylvania of funding.
Counsel for the defendants, however, told the jury that the case was not about ticket-fixing, because the indictment charged the defendants with wire fraud, conspiracy, and in some cases, perjury. Defense lawyers also noted that the traffic court judges often reduced the penalties for some ticket holders who were present at their hearings, and that the practice should not be construed as ticket-fixing.
Opening statements in the trial commenced in U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s courtroom before a jury of 15, composed of 12 jurors and three alternates.
Ticket holders were able to escape fines not because they bribed the traffic court judges, Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf explained to the jury, but because they had connections to the judges. Wolf added that the case surrounded 50 tickets allegedly fixed from 2008 to 2011.
The defendants at trial were traffic court Judges Michael Lowry, Thomasine Tynes, Michael J. Sullivan, Robert Mulgrew, Willie Singletary, Mark A. Bruno and businessman Robert Moy.
“Each of these defendants sitting behind their counsel fixed tickets at the Philadelphia Traffic Court, for friends, family, political supporters, business customers and for each other,” Wolf said.
“If you knew the six judge defendants and the one businessman defendant, chances are you wouldn’t get a ticket,” Wolf continued. “If you were just a member of the public, you would have to follow the rules and chances are you’d get a fine.”
Wolf provided an example of ticket-fixing allegedly perpetrated by Singletary in which he dismissed a ticket given to a school bus driver who was stopped for driving her own vehicle the wrong way down a city street. She also pointed to Lowry allegedly waiving roughly $1,000 worth of fines given to a transportation company as well as Mulgrew allegedly fixing a ticket for a bus driver who was driving without a commercial driver’s license.
Wolf added that the defendants in general would favor their constituents as well as local politicians, ward leaders, traffic court staff, union members, and friends and family members.
“When the judges fix tickets for people in their VIP club, they committed a fraud; they ripped the city of Philadelphia and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania off,” Wolf said. “When fixing tickets, they not only stained the black robes they wore, they committed a crime.”
Lawyers for each of the defendants told the jury that Philadelphia is the only county in the state that doesn’t require the ticket-issuing officer to prosecute. Lawyers said oftentimes, because the issuing officer is not there to clear up any confusion that may result from a ticket, a ticket holder receives a reduced penalty after pleading his or her case.
Sullivan’s attorney, Henry Hockeimer of Ballard Spahr, told the jury that prosecutors have confused plea-bargaining with ticket-fixing. He added that many of the people who showed up to their hearings received lesser penalties because they were the only ones available who knew firsthand the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the ticket.
“Ms. Wolf talked to you about VIP treatment … but if you show up to traffic court, you’ll get a break,” Hockeimer said, adding that the adage, “90 percent of life is showing up” applied.
Lowry’s counsel, Stevens & Lee attorney William A. DeStefano, echoed Hockeimer’s statements about the impact of issuing officers being absent at traffic court hearings.
Additionally, DeStefano compared judges reducing ticket penalties to police officers issuing motorists traffic tickets that don’t attach points to their licenses or simply giving the drivers a warning.
“Are the cops on the street or the state troopers defrauding the city of Philadelphia out of money by making that deal with the motorist?” DeStefano asked jurors. “Does that suggest to you, perhaps, the absurdity of the charges against these guys?”
William Brennan, who represented Singletary, urged the jury to remember that the defendants are innocent until proven guilty and to not prematurely accept the prosecution’s argument.
“If this case had to be decided now,” Brennan said, “you would have to find Willie and all of these people not guilty, because they are presumed innocent.”
He added, “Don’t fall into this ticket-fixing fervor … don’t fall into this and do what they couldn’t,” Brennan said of prosecutors’ attempts to prove that the traffic court was a corrupt organization.
Analogizing the different tiers of the judiciary to baseball leagues, Brennan said if federal and state judges were in “the World Series,” Singletary was in “softball.” He explained that Singletary, as someone who was elected to a judicial position in his late 20s, was placed into a challenging situation.
“Willie was thrown into this system where he had to judge,” Brennan said, “and that’s what he did.”
Vincent DiFabio of Platt, DiGiorgio & DiFabio represented Bruno and said the Chester County magisterial district judge who sat on the traffic court bench four times a year “was not a part of any culture down there.”
DiFabio said Bruno’s voice was never heard on any of the FBI wiretaps conducted in the case and his name was mentioned only once.
“I think what you’ll realize is that Judge Bruno is not involved in the culture of traffic court and did not participate in consideration,” DiFabio said, adding that there was “a complete lack of evidence as to his participation in any kind of a scheme.”
Moy’s attorney, Paul Hetznecker, was the last to present an opening statement.
During that time, Hetznecker said the entrepreneur devoted his Chinatown translation business—which prosecutors said earned him hundreds of dollars for every ticket he allegedly referred to judges for fixing—was geared toward helping the Chinese community in Philadelphia. Hetznecker added that Moy had no control over “the decision-making” in cases as the judges did.
Moy “dedicated himself to the service of those who have no access to the mechanics of government because of the barrier of language,” Hetznecker said.