Prison for former Traffic Court judge

Robert Mulgrew, who was the former director of Friends of Dickinson Square, leaves federal court after he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison in a fraud case involving the South Philadelphia nonprofit. He is seen leaving the court house in Philadelphia on August 6, 2014. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Former Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Robert Mulgrew was sentenced Wednesday to 21/2 years in prison on federal fraud and tax-evasion charges, two weeks after he dodged a potential conviction in a separate ticket-fixing conspiracy case.

Mulgrew, 55, admitted his role last year in a scheme to skim tens of thousands of dollars from state grants given to improve a park in South Philadelphia's Pennsport neighborhood.

On Wednesday, he apologized to U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones 2d, his family, and his neighborhood for betraying their trust.

"I'm very remorseful for my actions," the former judge said, reading a short statement in court. "I am sorry for these mistakes, and they will never happen again."

Acknowledging Mulgrew's efforts to reverse Pennsport's early-'90s decline, Jones said Wednesday it was ironic that Mulgrew was now headed to prison for stealing from funds intended to improve the same community.

"The same people he was benefiting then were some of the very same people whose public money he accessed and misappropriated," Jones said.

Mulgrew's three daughters looked on tearfully as the judge imposed his sentence. His wife, Elizabeth, cried out, "Oh, my God," before burying her head in her hands.

Elizabeth Mulgrew had also been charged in the case until her husband struck a deal to plead guilty in exchange for prosecutors' dropping all charges against her.

"At some point, Mr. Mulgrew lost the sense of fairness and responsibility to the community he instilled in his children and simply started looting," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Gray said in court Wednesday.

Throughout the three-hour sentencing hearing, Gray painted Mulgrew as a serial thief and tax cheat.

He told the court the former judge ripped off the Friends of Dickinson Square nonprofit by pocketing its money or giving it to relatives and political insiders for low-show jobs.

Mulgrew was vice president of the organization, which was formed to clean up the park near Fourth and Tasker Streets using state grants issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

He billed the nonprofit for leases on pickup trucks he used as his personal vehicles as well as for an $827 camera, extermination services, and cigarettes between 2002 and 2010.

Prosecutors have said the grant money was funneled to the Dickinson Square group by State Rep. William Keller, the Democrat who represents the area in the legislature's lower chamber.

A top Keller aide, Lorraine DiSpaldo, pleaded guilty last year to also defrauding the nonprofit. She is serving a 11/2-year prison sentence at the federal detention center in Danbury, Conn.

Despite Mulgrew's admission of his theft, several of his Pennsport neighbors - including City Councilman Mark Squilla - spoke out in his favor Wednesday.

They described a man frequently spotted on Pennsport streets, shoveling sidewalks for others, coaching youth sports teams, or cleaning graffiti off abandoned homes.

More often than not, said neighbor Maria Walker, he donned a trademark safari hat while he worked.

"When I first moved to the neighborhood in the '90s, it was really on the precipice. It really could have gone either way," she told Jones. "I can remember Bobby going out and cleaning it up himself."

In addition to the prison term, Jones ordered Mulgrew to repay nearly $200,000 to the state and an additional $123,000 he owed the IRS in back taxes and fines. Mulgrew wrote a check for the latter sum Wednesday, his lawyer, Angela Halim, said.

He is scheduled to report to prison Sept. 2 but will face another potential prison term soon after.

A federal jury acquitted him and four of his former colleagues on Traffic Court of mail and wire-fraud charges in July. But the panel found him guilty of lying to a grand jury about the court's long-standing system of granting favorable treatment to friends, relatives, and political allies with traffic tickets.

He could face up to an additional five years in prison at a hearing scheduled for later this year.