CRAIG R. MCCOY, JEREMY ROEBUCK, AND MARK FAZLOLLAH, INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
LAST UPDATED: Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 1:08 AM
POSTED: Tuesday, September 23, 2014, 11:22 PM
Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr., who has been under federal investigation for more than a year, has agreed to plead guilty to charges that he accepted illegal cash payments and fixed cases, people familiar with the plea negotiations said.
Waters abruptly resigned Tuesday, and is expected to plead guilty to wire fraud and mail fraud in a scheme in which he allegedly contacted two other judges to influence a pending lawsuit and a gun-possession case.
Unbeknownst to him, the calls he made to those judges were secretly taped by the FBI, a person familiar with the investigation said.
Waters has agreed to serve time in federal prison but has not agreed to cooperate in any ongoing investigation, according to people familiar with his plea.
A Marine veteran and former Philadelphia police captain who ran unsuccessfully for Superior Court last year, Waters, 61, did not respond to requests for comment.
His attorney, Michael J. Engle, said a hearing involving Waters would take place Wednesday in U.S. District Court.
Patricia Hartman, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said she could not confirm or deny reports of the expected plea.
Waters, a Democrat elected to Municipal Court in 2009, turned in his resignation Tuesday effective immediately, according to a spokeswoman for Marsha H. Neifield, president judge of Municipal Court.
Waters’ terse letter gave no reason for his departure, she said.
People familiar with the investigation say the wire-fraud allegation involves an intricate FBI sting in which agents set up a fictitious arrest of a defendant on gun charges.
They said a cooperating witness with an interest in the gun case gave Waters $1,000 in cash. The payment was supposed to be disguised as a campaign contribution, but Waters never reported it on his campaign disclosure statements, they said.
Under state law, donors are forbidden to give more than $100 in cash to any candidate.
Request on tape
Although the gun case involved a felony, they said, Waters asked the judge who was hearing the case for favorable treatment – a request that was caught on tape.
The mail-fraud charge stems from allegations that Waters helped sway the outcome of a civil case in 2011.
Last fall, The Inquirer reported that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed personal financial information and campaign-finance records from Waters and four other Philadelphia judges.
The newspaper said the investigation revolved around a politically active Kensington businessman, Samuel G. Kuttab.
Kuttab, 54, a grocer, has long been active in Philadelphia political circles and has raised money for Democratic candidates. At one time, he ran a 300-employee security-guard firm that won city contracts.
In 2002, he was convicted of tax evasion and served 22 months for his scheme to evade $1.2 million in taxes. After his release, Kuttab got back into the political game, helping stage a series of monthly dinners attended by Democratic officeholders, including Waters. The Inquirer reported last year that the FBI interviewed several people who attended those dinners.
Federal authorities also subpoenaed records relating to a case in which Kuttab’s business was sued for a $2,700 debt it owed a Montgomery County business, Houdini Lock & Safe Co.
According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Waters made calls to two other judges to assist Kuttab in that civil suit.
New trial date
Court records show that the case was originally assigned to Municipal Court Judge Dawn Segal.
Segal did not return telephone calls Tuesday. She has said she did nothing wrong in her handling of the case. The judge said she merely set a new trial date after Kuttab’s attorney told her he had gotten the case only an hour before his appearance in her courtroom and was not prepared to proceed.
The case ended up before Municipal Court Judge Joseph O’Neill. In November 2011, he ruled for Kuttab.
People with knowledge of the investigation say Waters contacted O’Neill about the case.
There is no indication that O’Neill or Segal took any payments, they said.
Reached late Tuesday, O’Neill declined to comment.
In an interview Tuesday, Kuttab described Waters as a close friend but said he never asked him to help with the Houdini lawsuit.
“I would never put him in a position like that,” he said. “I think that would have tarnished my relationship with him.”
‘A little leery’
According to Kuttab, Waters assisted him with the civil suit in only one way. On the day of a hearing, Kuttab said, his daughter had gone to court, planning to argue the case herself without the help of a lawyer. She ran into Waters, Kuttab said, and the judge arranged for another judge’s law clerk to represent the family.
As for any cash payment to Waters, Kuttab said his wife may have given a campaign contribution to the judge in recent years. He could not remember the amount but said it was for no more than $1,000. He said the contribution would have been made by check.
“Honestly, I can’t remember, but I doubt it would be cash,” he said. “I’m a little leery about that.”