PHILADELPHIA - Get caught speeding? Running a red light? Leaving the scene of an accident? For years, it was no problem, authorities say — so long as you were in Philadelphia and knew the right people.
The city's traffic court was the place where moving violations went to die, according to a federal indictment that charged nine judges with fixing tickets for friends, relatives, business associates and political allies.
A "widespread culture of giving breaks on traffic citations" persisted in the city, federal prosecutors alleged, though everyday citizens were out of luck. Only the well-connected got breaks.
Defense attorneys suggested that the judges 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. A court clerk and two businessmen also were charged.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Gary S. Glazer, a former federal prosecutor tapped by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille to clean up traffic court, hailed Thursday's indictment as a "very positive step toward reforming the institution."
"It has historically been a terribly troubled place," he told The Associated Press.
The state's Judicial Conduct Board moved quickly to suspend the judges without pay, pending the outcomes of their cases. Traffic court judges, who are not required to be lawyers, make about $91,000 per year.
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 steep fines and 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 noted that Singletary had openly campaigned on a promise that he would do favors for supporters.
"There's going to be a basket going around because I'm running for traffic court judge, right, and I need some money," the indictment quoted Singletary as saying at a 2007 motorcycle club meeting. "I got some stuff that I got to do, but if you all can give me twenty dollars you're going to need me in traffic court, am I right about that? ... Now you all want me to get there, you're all going to need my hook-up, right?"
The 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.; suspended Traffic Court Judge Robert Mulgrew; former Traffic Court Judges 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.
Court workers should have been trained in ethics and warned that new policies were being adopted, said defense lawyer Gregory Pagano, who represents Hird.
"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."
Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican from the Philadelphia suburbs who plans to introduce legislation abolishing traffic court, called it an institution "with a multi-generational tradition of dysfunction" and predicted Thursday's indictment will accelerate consideration of the bill.
"Traffic Court is not worth saving," he declared.
No other county in Pennsylvania has a dedicated traffic court. Traffic offenses outside Philadelphia are typically handled by district judges who preside over a wide range of criminal and civil matters.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.