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Being a Traffic Court judge is a great job.
Despite the title, you don’t need to be a lawyer to do it. You get paid $91,000 a year. You get to wear a black robe, if you so choose, and everyone calls you “Your Honor,” even if you are not particularly honorable.
The job does have its hazards, as a number of current and former Traffic Court judges recently discovered after being indicted by the U.S. Attorney in an alleged ticket-fixing scheme, a scandal that has led legislative leaders in Harrisburg to advance bills to abolish the court.
Not to worry. Dozens of people are lining up to fill three seats vacated by indicted judges. Of the 41 people who filed to run in the May 21 primary, 25 remain after all the withdrawals and legal challenges to petitions.
It’s the only office where you will need to rent a bus if you want to invite the candidates to a make a joint appearance.
The voters don’t have a clue who these candidates are, so ballot position is key. Ballot position is determined by lottery, and obviously, the top spot is the choicest. This year, Warren Bloom won that coveted spot among the Democrats.
This is a repeat performance by Bloom. He ran for City Commissioner two years ago and also got the No. 1 ballot spot for that race. He came in sixth.
This year, with so many candidates running, he is virtually guaranteed to win the primary – which is tantamount to getting elected in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Bloom, who is a part-time minister, attributes his winning No. 1 not to the luck of the draw but to the Almighty. “I believe God put me there,” he told me.
If that’s the case, God has a twisted sense of humor. Bloom is a poster boy for why we should not be electing our judges.
For starters, he is a tax deadbeat. He still owes the city close to $20,000 in back business and real estate taxes, though he says he has made arrangements to pay them off. Then there is the matter of his 1992 conviction of indecent assault and corrupting a minor in a case involving a 14-year-old female cousin. Bloom pleaded no contest and got probation. He was 39 years old at the time.
Another repeat candidate is Omar Sabir, who ran and lost in 2011. At least Sabir can claim some expertise in Traffic Court, since he was a scofflaw who had his license suspended in 2008 due to unpaid tickets.
I couldn’t reach Sabir this week, but when I talked to him in 2011 he said his scofflaw experience led him to run for the job. “We need a friendlier system,” he told me. “People are making mistakes and there are no people [at Traffic Court] who understand.”
That may be only partially true. As it turns out, some Traffic Court judges were very understanding of people who had the right political connections. Or so it is alleged in the federal indictment.
Call me finicky, but I believe if you run for public office your personal affairs should be in order: taxes paid, utility bills up to date, everything copasetic.
That belief is not widely held by all Traffic Court candidates. Bloom is an example. He said his unpaid taxes date back to the days when he worked as a writ server, and he thought his employer was deducting taxes. (He was a contract employee, so he was supposed to be paying his own taxes.) But, hey, these things happen!
Another candidate, Tia Seibert, is listed in court records as owing the city $19,536 in back business taxes for 1999 through 2004. Seibert said they were from a failed cosmetology shop she had at the time. She says she is making efforts to pay the money due, which may explain in part why she is running for a job that pays $91,000 a year.
Bruce H. Bailey and Verna Ragan Tennant also have state or local tax debts listed on the court records due to failed businesses. I was unable to reach them to discuss the particulars.
Keith Jackson’s residency was challenged in court and he appeared personally at a hearing on Friday to offer proof that he does, in fact, live on the 2600 block of Master Street. Unfortunately, he left the courtroom before I could ask him why he also owes $757 in taxes and fines for unpaid real estate tax for 2012.
Candidate James Johnson of the 1400 block of W. Letterly Street owes $2,817 in back real estates taxes on his home that date back eight years. Calls to Johnson went unanswered.
Lynwood Savage is up to date on his taxes, but court records show him owing $1,649 to PGW in gas bills that date back to 2009. I was unable to track Savage down. If you call the telephone number he listed on his candidate’s affidavit you will hear a recorded message for a Pathmark pharmacy in South Philadelphia.
Candidate Donna Marie Laws is listed as owing a total of $5,700 in overdue gas bills during a period between 2004 and 2008. The same records indicate she has paid those back bills, but she was not at all amused when I called her to ask about the cases. At first, she categorically denied she ever owed any money for gas service.
When I told her I was staring at the court database that listed her name, address and the cases, she said they were in error. She was incorrectly billed for some services and if there was anything it was a “discrepancy that was rectified in a manner that was fair.” So be it.
Donna Aument-Loughery was also not amused when I called her about the $620 in back real estate taxes she owed for 2012 on her Kensington rowhouse, complaining about “you guys in the media,” who leap to conclusions without adequate facts.
Loughery, whose mother is Democratic leader of the 33rd Ward, said she bought the house at Sheriff’s Sale in 2011and thought the taxes were paid as part of the sale. They were not. City records list taxes due from 2009 and 2010 — which is before Loughery owned the home — as well as 2012. Loughery said she did not pay the 2012 bill because she is unemployed — she left her job in the Philadelphia court system to run for Traffic Court.
I am happy to report that Loughery is no longer delinquent.
After our telephone conversation in the morning, she called me several hours later to say she had arranged to pay the taxes the same day. I take her word for it, though it will take a while for that payment to show up on official city records. She also thanked me for bringing the matter to her attention — though I may have detected a note of sarcasm in her voice.
Meanwhile, the sands of time may be running out for Traffic Court. Senate Bill 334, which would fold the operations of the court into Municipal Court, has passed the Senate and is under consideration in the state House. The odds are it will pass the Republican-controlled legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Corbett.
So the primary will be held, but these candidates may have no job to report to in January.
Despite this, all the candidates I talked to were optimistic — or maybe in denial — about the future of the court. Though acknowledging the court has had some problems lately, they portrayed the legislative move to abolish it as partisan trickery.
As Bloom and others put it, Traffic Court is “the people’s court” and deserves to survive.
I’m not at all sure the people agree.