The charges are essentially grassroots corruption -- that an entrenched system in Philadelphia fixed the tickets of connected drivers while severely punishing drivers with no clout.
Nine traffic court judges, virtually everyone who wore the robe in the city's traffic court between July 2008 and September 2011, were arrested today and forced to stand on the other side of the bench and be accused by federal prosecutors of cheating the average citizen out of a fair shake.
Among them, the judges face charges of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, wire fraud, mail fraud, perjury, making false statements to the FBI, and aiding and abetting. They could be punished by 60 to 490 years behind bars and face millions of dollars in fines.
Defendant William Hird, who could face 315 years in prison and a $4.5 million fine on nearly 20 criminal counts, said only "no comment" today when leaving his arraignment. But his lawyer said the former judge was "being indicted for essentially doing his job."
FBI Acting Special Agent-in-Charge John Brosnan had a different perspective, saying at a news conference that "justice in any courtroom requires fairness."
One of the nine judges, Willie Singletary, in what prosecutors characterized as a brazen sale of justice, was captured on a video meeting with a motorcycle club called the Philadelphia First State Road Rattlers, saying: "There's going to be a basket going around because I'm running for Traffic Court judge, right, and I need some money. I got some stuff that I got to do, but if you all can give me $20 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?"
Singletary faces charges that could add up to 490 years in prison and $6.5 million in fines on 27 counts, prosecutors said.
Another judge, Michael J. Sullivan, owner of a local Philadelphia tavern, allegedly instructed his friends and political cronies to put their tickets in a box behind the bar for the fix. He faces a potential penalty of 440 years in prison and a $5.5 million fine on 23 counts.
Judge Gary Glazer is in charge of reforming the court, brought in as a result of the on-going FBI investigation.
"It's a great sense of sadness that an institution can be corrupted," Glazer said. "It's a great sense of embarrassment that judges can operate in a way that's essentially lawless."
Just how far do authorities say the fix was in? If you had a connection through family, a state supreme court report found that you had an 85 percent chance of getting your ticket dismissed or being found not guilty, while the average person in that same courtroom had a mere 26 percent chance of being found not guilty.
Glazer said judges would be alerted in advance when "particular people were interested in particular results for particular parties appearing in court," in order to ensure those cases were handled with special treatment.
"It is such a widespread practice that, unfortunately, the court has become, to paraphrase Jon Stewart, the whoopee-cushion of the judiciary. It's become a real problem," Glazer said.
That same report accused Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, who was not charged today with any legal wrongdoing, of being a frequent requester of courtroom favors.
"You call me to try and get you help because you know us, because you're involved in politics or you're a Democratic committee person. We give you an attorney and the attorney goes down," Brady told ABC News. "Sometimes you're guilty and sometimes you're not."
When ABC News pressed the congressman, asking if he had ever called in a favor, Brady vehemently denied it, saying "never at all."
Brady added that he "doesn't approve" of the Philadelphia judges' alleged behavior.
"My philosophy is that if somebody has a problem with traffic court, we do not call the judge, we do not talk to a judge. Never do that for any judge, for anybody. I would not do that," he said. "All I do is get an attorney, supply an attorney for them, which happens once a month, once every two months."
Besides Hird, Singletary and Sullivan, the six judges charged today are Michael Lowry, Robert Mulgrew, Thomasine Tynes, Mark A. Bruno, Henry "Eddy" Alfano and Robert Moy.
The Philadelphia case is just the latest in a series of big-city courtroom corruption cases. In New York, cops deny accusations that they fixed tickets. In Detroit, an officer pleaded no contest to accusations he ticketed a driver and later promised to get the tickets overturned "for a price." He received two months in jail and two years probation. In San Diego, a 27-year veteran pleaded no contest to destroying seatbelt violations given to district attorneys and subsequently resigned.
It is a problem so pervasive, the FBI says public corruption is now its No. 1 criminal focus.
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