PHILADELPHIA — A prosecutor describing alleged ticket-fixing in Philadelphia said traffic court was a place where insiders could be found not guilty without opening their mouths — or even showing up in court.
"What a country. You don't have to say a word. You stand up, and you're not guilty," Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek said dryly in closing arguments Thursday in the trial of five former traffic court judges.
Defense lawyers argued that federal prosecutors cleared the bench — nine current and former judges were indicted last year — for time-worn practices that were never deemed illegal, or even wrong, in Philadelphia.
"It's what we judges do, amongst ourselves," Judge Willie Singletary once told a visiting judge, Wzorek said.
Singletary is best remembered in Philadelphia as the judge tossed from the bench for showing cellphone photos of his genitals to a female clerk, and openly promising voters a friend, or "hook-up," at court as he campaigned at a motorcycle rally.
Jurors have listened to the judges on taped phone conversations made during the FBI probe, and heard testimony from a string of people who had tickets dismissed. Defense lawyers note that no money changed hands, although at least one judge allegedly got seafood and pornographic videos in return.
Traffic judges in Philadelphia did not need a law degree to sit in the $90,000-a-year jobs. The court was abolished after last year's sweeping federal indictment, and its duties moved to the city's Municipal Court.
The January 2013 indictment offered some colorful details of the chaotic court, including tickets dropped for businessman Henry Alfano, a strip club landlord who also owned a tow-truck business. Alfano pleaded guilty during jury selection.
At least one of the judges' "personals" — a colloquial term for a personal assistant — testified early in the six-week trial that he put aside tickets that needed "consideration" for people with court ties. However, he said he never thought it was illegal. Sometimes, the tickets were reduced, but not dismissed.
"He may have come up in a system that stinks, but he didn't create it," Singletary's lawyer, William J. Brennan, argued in closings.
He noted that prosecutors gave immunity to scores of favor-seekers, including police officers, pastors and politicians.
And he said his client is accused of fixing just 18 tickets out of 73,000 processed in several years on the bench. Some of the tickets in question were flawed, and Singletary never took a dime to dismiss them, Brennan said.
"It's amazing that a 25-year-old kid can get on the bench, be surveilled by the FBI and handle $11 million in tickets, and they can't point to him taking a bus pass to give 'consideration,'" said Brennan, who said his client never went past high school.
The remaining defendants are former judges Michael Sullivan, Thomasine Tynes, Robert Mulgrew and Michael Lowry. The jury is expected to get the case next week, after additional defense arguments Friday.