Wanna be a judge? Get your wallet out

A screengrab from judicial candidate William Ciancaglini’s very entertaining YouTube promotional video. Unable to afford “contributions” to various committees, he decided to take to the Internet.

IN THIS SPECIAL edition of Clout, we're focusing on Philadelphia's judicial elections.

A screengrab from judicial candidate William Ciancaglini’s very entertaining YouTube promotional video. Unable to afford “contributions” to various committees, he decided to take to the Internet. Gallery: Wanna be a judge? Get your wallet out

That's when local attorneys are forced to debase themselves by wading into a fetid political hot tub with fistfuls of cash before rinsing off, donning a nice black robe and taking their rightful seat on the bench.

Candidates for Common Pleas Court, for instance, are expected to make a "contribution" - $35,000 should do it - to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's Democratic City Committee in exchange for the party's endorsement.

That's supposed to land you on the party's sample ballot in each of the city's 69 wards, which would be extremely valuable when you are among dozens of candidates. Except, that $35,000 is only the first of several payoffs needed to make your name stand out.

Next up are rogue ward leaders, such as the Northeast's John Sabatina Sr., who are known to run their own ticket. They might suggest that if you kick a few thou their way, ehhh, maybe you'd do better in their corner of the city. Maybe, ehhh, your name would actually appear on the sample ballot in their ward - like it's already supposed to.

(We left a message for Sabatina, but never heard back. Maybe if we PayPal him $100 first, he'll call?)

And don't be surprised if a few Democratic "consultants" come sauntering out of the shadows. Those guys can be very useful. For the right price.

Pete Truman was a master at helping judicial candidates navigate street-level politics. He raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars to essentially influence a group of about 19 ward leaders that some called the "New Progressive Alliance" or the "Truman Group," according to federal prosecutors. He operated for decades and was still doing business well into his 70s.

"We'd organize community groups and hold meetings and get the candidate exposed to some people," said Truman, a former cop, state representative and clerk of quarter sessions who says he's now out of the consulting game.

The feds caught up with Truman in 2009, claiming that he'd cheated the government out of $150,000 in income taxes. He looked to be dead to rights, but the charges were dropped after Truman was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial. Some guys have all the luck.

OK, now that you're familiar with the basic principles of extor . . . um, endorsements, let's move on.

 

Six figures needed

In 2001, a grand-jury report summed up the process thusly: "It is a horrible system. No individual who seeks to become a neutral arbiter of society's legal fate should be made to endure such a process."

Fourteen years later, not much has changed. It's just more expensive.

Ask William Ciancaglini, an underdog Common Pleas candidate from South Philly.

"It's a horrible system," he said. (We didn't pay him to say that.)

Ciancaglini, who recently made a cheesy, Hail Mary (but fantastic) YouTube campaign video featuring Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," has been tapping his own savings account for palm cards and other expenses, but he doesn't have the kind of money needed to pay the Democratic machine - and its many, many cogs.

"It's a damn shame that a good person can't be a judge unless you have $150,000 to $200,000 to waste," he said. "I spoke to a committeeperson and he said, 'Do you have any money?' And I said, 'Not particularly.' And he said, 'You need at least $100,000.' The conversation lasted about three minutes."

Where does that money come from? Maybe you're independently wealthy or have a rich uncle, or you go into steep debt, hoping that your anticipated salary - $176,572 for Common Pleas, $172,486 for Municipal Court - will bail you out. Or you somehow manage to raise a good chunk of money, despite competing with about 50 other trial-court candidates this year, plus the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Court candidates, the City Council candidates and the mayoral candidates.

"It's good ballot position, party endorsement and money," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "People have said you need two out of three."

Basically, we're talking fate and bribes.

"Too often, it's a crapshoot," Marks said. "It's actually surprising to me that we have as many good judges that we do."

 

The good, the bad and the endorsed

Jodi Lobel would probably make a good judge. But that probably won't happen. Because the process has nothing to do with her qualifications (see above).

About a year ago, Lobel, then an assistant district attorney, noticed her conversations with local judges, lawyers and others in the legal community were starting to change. People were telling her to run for Common Pleas Court judge.

The pleas got louder, more frequent, and Lobel eventually decided to go for it, resigning from the D.A.'s office, where she rose over the course of 23 years to become the chief of the charging unit and later deputy of the trial division.

The road ahead looked smooth until March 18, when judicial candidates learned their ballot position by pulling a number out of a pouch in Harrisburg. Lobel got number 42 - out of what was then a field of 54 Democratic candidates. Not good.

Three days later, Lobel pitched herself to Democratic City Committee leaders, including chairman Brady and Local 98 honcho John Dougherty, during a closed-door interview. A week later, her father died. Then she got the news that the party's leaders weren't backing her. Without a good ballot spot or the party's support, fundraising became a huge challenge.

"I had so much support to run," Lobel said. "But this system rewards luck over merit. All of the things you've done and accomplished suddenly seem meaningless."

Before jumping in to the race, Lobel did some homework on how the machine operates.

"It was really eye-opening," she said. "I'm a public servant, not a politician . . . but I felt like I had substantive qualities that I could contribute."

Lobel, who is rated as "recommended" by the Philadelphia Bar Association, is staying in the race, nonetheless.

Then you have defense lawyer Scott DiClaudio, who is rated "not recommended" by the bar association but snagged the top ballot position. As a result, he's likely to win one of the 12 Common Pleas slots in this month's Democratic primary.

If we printed what some of DiClaudio's colleagues in the legal community were saying after learning that, we'd probably get sued for libel. Lots of bad adjectives.

DiClaudio has gotten into trouble - repeatedly - in the state Supreme Court for, among other things, mishandling a client's appeal of a criminal conviction. He was informally admonished in 2003 for a similar offense and again in 2008 for allegedly "making false and misleading statements" to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, according to court filings.

But guess what? The Democratic City Committee endorsed DiClaudio anyway. See, the committee likes to back winners, because judicial races are big money-makers. It's easy to sell the endorsement next time if you can show that your candidates won last time.

"If Adolf Hitler got No. 1 ballot position, they would figure out a way to endorse him," said one well-connected Philadelphia lawyer who has run a successful judicial campaign.

Nelson Diaz, a former Common Pleas judge now running for mayor, said party leaders used to only endorse candidates with a "recommended" rating by the bar association. Apparently, those standards have been lowered.

Diaz, who was endorsed by the Democratic City Committee when he ran in 1981, also recalled getting screwed by Northeast Philly ward leaders who didn't fall in line.

"I was pretty much cut in the entire Northeast by ward leaders who sold my line to other candidates," said Diaz, who's heard that the same thing is happening this year. "Some things never change."

Committee of Seventy president David Thornburgh called the judicial selection process "highly imperfect." That's one way to put it.

Seventy has long pushed for merit-based selection for judges, but that's not happening any time soon.

For now, Thornburgh said, the Democratic City Committee could put its interviews with judicial candidates on YouTube.

"If there's nothing untoward about them, let's watch," he said.

Untoward? Never!

Staff writers William Bender

and Dave Gambacorta

contributed to this report.

 


Email: benderw@phillynews.com

and gambacd@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5255

Blog: philly.com/philly/news/

politics/mayor/