In Traffic Court, favor granted without asking

Former Traffic Court judge Michael Lowry leaves federal court on Monday. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

The well-oiled ticket-fixing machinery of Philadelphia Traffic Court worked so well, federal prosecutors sought to show Wednesday, that sometimes a well-connected ticket holder never even had to ask for special treatment.

Consider the case of Joseph Mauro, a West Chester man who told jurors that he never sought help fighting a citation he received nearly four years ago. Yet, apparently without his knowledge, an appeal was filed, a lawyer hired, a case in Common Pleas Court fought and won, and legal documents signed in his name - developments he said he knew nothing about until FBI agents showed up on his doorstep years later.

His only connection to Traffic Court? His childhood friend Mark A. Bruno, a Chester County district judge, one of seven current and former jurists on trial on conspiracy and fraud charges. "I didn't have any knowledge of any of this," Mauro, 50, testified Wednesday when asked about the prolonged legal proceedings surrounding his speeding ticket.

In fact, Mauro told jurors, when he was stopped for speeding in late 2010 on the Walt Whitman Bridge, he figured he would just pay the fine and move on. The officer who ticketed him, he said, assured him that the citation would not result in points being added to his driving record. Mauro mailed a check to cover the $119 fine and never attended his hearing.

Still, he said, testifying under a grant of immunity, he mentioned the ticket to his old high school classmate, Bruno.

Bruno - an out-of-towner who was assigned temporarily to the Philadelphia court for a few days each year - has remained a background figure in the ongoing trial. His lawyers have asked witness after witness if they had any knowledge of Bruno's involvement in the alleged ticket-fixing conspiracy, and each time, the answer has been no.

Mauro told jurors he wasn't looking for Bruno to intervene. "I was just looking for advice," he said.

When he later received a letter from Traffic Court notifying him that he still owed 50 cents on his fine and would have two points added to his record as a result of his guilty plea, Mauro wrote a check to cover the paltry sum - and taped two quarters to it for good measure.

But he appeared flummoxed Wednesday as federal prosecutors presented him with court filings showing he had appealed the case to Common Pleas Court, signed over power of attorney to lawyer Joseph Kelly, and won his case, ensuring the points would be removed.

Mauro said he never filed the case and never met Kelly, and said the signature on the legal documents certainly wasn't his. Kelly, contacted later by a reporter, said he did not recall representing Mauro and declined to comment further.

Mauro did receive a subsequent letter from the state Department of Transportation notifying him that the points on his record would be removed. But Mauro testified Wednesday that he "didn't give much thought" as to what might have prompted it.

Equally important, though, stressed Bruno's lawyer William McSwain, Mauro couldn't say Bruno had done anything to help him.

Prosecutors aimed to prove to jurors that he had. They played a series of wiretapped conversations between Bruno and former Traffic Court Judge Fortunato Perri Sr. regarding Mauro's ticket.

Perri, who helped land Bruno his temporary stints at the Philadelphia court, pleaded guilty to wire and mail fraud last year and had retired by the time a Chester County Court judge reached out to him regarding Mauro in early 2011.

Still, when Bruno questioned Perri about why Mauro had been found guilty of his original speeding offense, Perri reassured him.

"I still got a little connection," the retired judge said. "You want me to look into it?"

Days later, Perri responded. "Send me a check for $12.50," he told Bruno, quoting the price of a filing fee to appeal a Traffic Court decision. "And in the future, deal with me."

Whatever those recordings may show, defense lawyers for Bruno's codefendants argued, they were largely irrelevant to the crimes of which their clients stand accused.

Prosecutors have alleged that the court's culture of ticket-fixing has cost the state untold revenue in fines and fees. But in Mauro's case, the fine was paid - and, in fact, overpaid, with the two quarters Mauro taped to his check.

Quipped prosecutor Denise Wolf: "Having two points removed is worth the 50 cents."