The decision late last month by the state Court of Judicial Discipline restoring Magisterial District Judge Mark Bruno’s pay was remarkable for reasons other than that it sought to overturn a ruling by the state Supreme Court regarding his pay status.
In addition, in his 32-page opinion, President Judge Bernard L. McGinley offered a painstaking guide to the actual criminal case against Bruno, who was indicted by federal prosecutors in January as part of a wide-ranging “ticket fixing” conspiracy among Philadelphia Traffic Court judges.
In a variety of ways, McGinley found allegations in the case against Bruno lacking, or in his words, “scant and shaky.”
In one instance in particular, the judge stated flatly that he did not believe that Bruno’s conviction was “a sure thing.”
Bruno’s attorneys said last week they were happy with the court’s decision, not only because his pay was ordered restored but because it pointed to the weaknesses in the federal government’s case against their client.
“There are significant portions of the opinion that we intend to use a past of our defense in this case,” said attorney Vincent DiFabio of Paoli, who is one of two attorneys representing Bruno.
“These are issues that we intend to pursue, and I would agree with the court’s opinion about the quantum of proof in the government’s case as set forth in the indictment,” DiFabio said Thursday.
The attorney who represented Bruno before the state disciplinary court and argued that he should not have been suspended without pay when he was indicted, Samuel Stretton of West Chester, was blunter in his assessment of the case. “I think there is a good chance that he will be acquitted,” Stretton said.
Bruno, a district court judge in West Chester since 1998, is charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud. He was one of 12 judges caught up in a ticket-fixing scandal in the Philadelphia court, but he is facing the least number of criminal charges among them. Some of the judges charged, including former Senior Traffic Court Judge Fortunato N. Perri Sr., have pleaded guilty.
DiFabio said last week that he was still in the middle of receiving thousands of pages of discovery from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and was preparing for a trial that would begin in November at the earliest. Despite the favorable ruling that the disciplinary court delivered on Bruno’s behalf on May 24, Bruno remains suspended from office.
Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, on Thursday declined to comment on the criminal case against Bruno in general or on the Court of Judicial Discipline’s decision and opinion.
The first notion that McGinley, in his opinion, harbored doubts about Bruno’s participation in the ticket fixing scheme came when he noted that the government itself alleged that the corrupt practices the other judges were engaged in – allowing connected business owners to escape paying traffic tickets for their employees or receiving “points’ on the drivers’ licenses – ceased when he spent the one week a year he sat on Traffic Court cases to let judges take vacation.
The traffic judges “found it difficult, challenging, risky to get illegal things done during the week Bruno and the other magisterial district judges were in Traffic Court,” McGinley wrote. “In other words, business as usual couldn’t be done that week.”
In one case that the government cited, Bruno sat in the court on may 12, 2012 and found a defendant identified as L.R. not guilty of traffic citations. But the indictment alleges that Traffic Court Judge Michael Sullivan, a member of the conspiracy, had continued hearings for defendants who were working with Perri to get their tickets fixed. The implication is, McGinley wrote, that judges couldn’t “get it through,” because Bruno and the other magisterial judges were on duty.
It is evident that the scenario “does nothing by way of implicating (Bruno) in the fixing of any ticket — much less of being a participant in a ‘culture’ of corruption or in the ‘conspiracy’ described in this indictment,” McGinley wrote. “Instead, it weighs heavily to disimplicate him from any such participation.”
McGinley later noted that there as nothing in the federal indictment that Bruno in finding L.R. not guilty, was doing anything other than properly judging the facts of the case.
Next, McGinley pointed to the one event for which Bruno was most seriously implicated: his request, caught on a recorded telephone conversation with Perri, to fix a ticket for a defendant identified as J.M.
The indictment cited Jan. 14, 2011, as the date when the call between Bruno and Perri was made and when Perri had promised to “look into it.” The indictment further shows that Perri discussed J.M.’s ticket with another defendant, William Hird.
But as McGinley said that DiFabio testified to in a hearing before the disciplinary court on April 8, J.M. was actually found guilty of the citations against him in Traffic Court. He then appealed that decision to Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia and was found guilty there for an offense that did not require points on his ticket.
In their indictment, McGinley wrote that the federal prosecutors “went nowhere with this ticket — there was, it appears, nowhere to go.”
There was no evidence, the judge wrote, that the ticket was “fixed.”
“One wonders why it was mentioned at all,” his decision states. He speculated that because prosecutors would likely not be able to win a conviction on the L.R. tickets, they decided to shoehorn the J.M. conversations into the picture because it tended to show a conspiracy.
But because it was the only such conversation the indictment alleges Bruno had with anyone else in the Traffic Court ring, “the evidence of that conversation falls decidedly short of establishing (Bruno’s) participation in the pervasive, expansive, truly impressive conspiracy described in the indictment.”
When it came to the mail and wire fraud charges against Bruno, McGinley again cast doubt on whether the government would be able to prove him guilty on technical grounds. Mail fraud calls for a document verifying the illegal scheme to have been sent to someone in the mail, when it appears that this was not done in the Traffic Court schemes with which Bruno was allegedly involved.
“In these circumstances, it seems that Bruno’s conviction of mail fraud is anything but a sure thing,” McGinley wrote.
Similarly, the wire fraud count necessitates that the government lose money or property in the illegal transaction, when that was not the case here, McGinley said, because there were findings in the case that defendants were not guilty and thus no fines or costs were levied against them. A verdict of guilty “is a pre-prerequisite; and it hasn’t been alleged because it can’t be alleged. It didn’t happen.”
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