BY JONATHAN VALANIA Attorney William Ciancaglini, aka Billy C., thinks the pay-to-play method of electing judges in this city stinks on ice. He should know, he’s an underdog candidate for Common Pleas judge. The source of that stink, he says, is the funny money you have to pay into the Dem Machine to become a judge in this city. That’s right, seats on the bench don’t go to the most qualified, they go to the highest bidder. Just to get into the game will cost you $35K, money Ciancaglini doesn’t have. Even though he’s a trial lawyer, Ciancaglini considers himself ‘a working class guy.’ He certainly started out that way. Born in South Philly, he went to Pennco Tech but elected not to pursue a career servicing HVACs. Instead he put himself through law school working as a dealer in the casinos of Atlantic City.
Today he is a reasonably successful defense attorney who’s grown disenchanted with the poor judgement, dubious impartiality and ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mentality of too many of the judges he’s encountered in the court rooms of Philadelphia. And so he’s doing something about it, he’s running to replace one. Given that he is unwilling or unable to pony up the $35, 000 it costs to, de facto, buy a seat on the bench, Ciancaglini is a long shot at best, which is why he is so willing to pull back the curtain on the smoky backroom deals of Philly machine politics and show everyone how the electoral sausage gets made in this town. It ain’t pretty.
(In the interest of full disclosure, yes, Ciancaglini is first cousins with mobsters Johnny Chang, Joey Chang, and Michael Chang, but has nothing to do with the family business. “Haven’t seen or spoken with them in forever,” he says when asked about it. “Nothing personal, just cousins I never see. Probably haven’t talked to them or seen them in about 30 years even though we live close. Our fathers are brothers. My father was Joey Sr.’s brother.”)
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: To be honest with you, it’s lack of funds. You know to get the Democratic City Committe endorsement, it costs $35,000, and that’s not the end of it, that’s the beginning of it. I don’t have an extra $35,000, for me to produce $35,000 would be everything I have, and take a loan.
PHAWKER: Okay let’s back up a minute. Who gets paid $35,000?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: If you’re asking for a name I’m not 100% sure but I’ll say “The Democratic City Committee.” To get their endorsement you have to pay them $35,000. They endorse 12 people, that list [of current judge candidates] is out there, and I doubt that I’m mistaken, but to the best of my knowledge, 100% of those people have paid $35,000 each to the Democratic City Committee, and that’s just where the spending starts. The ward leaders, most of them have their hands out, and they want additional money to hand out your ballots on elections day, and I believe there are 69 wards, so that would make 69 ward leaders [you have to pay off].
PHAWKER: How much does that cost?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: I could guess at it, but I don’t want to take a guess because I’m not even in that discussion. I don’t have the $35,000 to start, I can’t get to that second level of paying.
PHAWKER: So, what are your thoughts on this arrangement?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: I think the arrangement’s horrible because it keeps people like myself off of the bench, and we hear so much about the need for diversity on the bench, I hope that diversity means more than different genders and colors, I would hope that it means different types of people, and a guy like me, I’m trying everything I can to get in. I’m a hard-working, blue collar guy who had to put myself through law school, and I’m finding this, sadly, to be a glass-ceiling that I can’t break through. And it’s not just sad for me, it’s sad for everybody who wants to run, sad for the city, it’s just bad.
PHAWKER: Is this the only road to the bench through the Democratic Committee? Could you run as a Republican?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: You could run as a Republican, but in Philadelphia, you could check the stats, I don’t think that’s an option for success. There’s an overwhelming number of people listed as Democrat — Democrats always win in Philadelphia. Not saying they’re a better party, but that’s just how it is. So if I want to win, Democrats are the only road
PHAWKER: Why do you want to sit on the bench?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: I want to make a difference, for real. I know that’s the usual bullshit everyone says when they’re running. But I’ve been a lawyer for 12 years and I do not like what I’m seeing. I see too many innocent people going to jail, and that’s horrible every time. When I was starting out, an older lawyers said to me, ‘It’s like a relief pitcher, you gotta have a short memory, you know?’ The next day it’s onto the next case, but when you see someone who you believe is innocent, go to jail, I mean that’s, you’d have to be a really heartless person to go to sleep wake up and pretend it didn’t happen.
PHAWKER: Why are innocent people going to jail?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. I represented a 24 year old, young black kid, from a poor neighborhood, he was on his dirt bike riding around, 4 hours, not bothering anybody, not robbing anybody. The Housing Authority police is getting annoyed about the noise. So what, it’s what he wants to do, it makes noise. So one of them jumps in front of him, in the middle of the street, yells ‘Stop!’ from five feet away. Both officers testify that my guy skids, from five feet away, and hits the officer in his leg. Officer gets pissed, because he got hit by a motor bike. Comes to court, gives an angry story, gives an angry look up at the judge while she’s deciding, they convict [my client] of aggravated assault against a police officer. He’s looking at 3-6 years. I’m just asking — this is the testimony. you could read it yourself — do you think this guy decided to ride around for four hours not bothering anybody, and then say, I want to run over this [police] officer who didn’t bother me for four hours? It’s insane.
PHAWKER: So why is there this “lock ‘em up” mentality when the prison system is so severely overcrowded?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: I’ll tell you why, because judges are afraid to say that police lie on the stand. And no judge is willing to say, ‘You know what, this is just absolute bullshit.’ Nobody.
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Oh, I got 45 opponents for 12 spots.
PHAWKER: There’s 45 people that are all running for a bench seat, and it’s the 12 that get the most votes are the ones that get the seats. Is that how it works?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Correct. There were 59. Generally, when you get a bad ballot spot — there’s a drawing and you pick them out of a bag, just complete random luck — generally the people with the bad ballot spots, like mine, drop out. Fourteen did. So there’s 45 left, and the 12 with the most votes win the primary then go on to the general election. I would think whatever 12 go on to the general election would have a 98% chance of winning because it would be Democrat versus Republican.
PHAWKER: The primaries in the city function as a de facto general election because of the preponderance of Democratic voters over Republicans.
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Yeah, this is the race. May 19 is the battle.
PHAWKER: And you think people just pull the lever for the names that are nearest the top, is that how it works?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Not necessarily. Some people I’m sure do vote for the top twelve names. But more importantly the Democratic City Committee is gonna be handing out those flyers at the polls with the names of those who paid them $35,000 — ‘Vote for 16, 17, 22, 29.’ And that’s nice to have people at every single voting booth handing out something with your number on it. And if some people are willing to blindly follow someone you see once a year, and many do, they’re gonna vote for those people. It’s better to have someone handing out your number than not.
PHAWKER: And what would it take to reform this process?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: That’s a great one. I could probably tell you things that aren’t going to happen, like don’t let the party take money from candidates, that would do it but of course we won’t see that happen. Something else we won’t see is getting rid of the random ballot thing, have some type of computerized thing where every time a voter goes in, the 45 names are scrambled in position, so people have to look at their names. Picking a name and a number out of a hat determines who could be a judge for pretty much life in Philadelphia. That’s a huge thing.
PHAWKER: How long are these terms?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Virtually life. The reason why I say that is it’s 10 years, and then after 10 years, you go for re-election through a yes or no. Like ‘Should Judge Bill Ciancaglini be re-elected, yes or no?’ And I believe the ‘Nos” have won maybe once in the city’s history. So I believe the retention is like 99%, so, life.
PHAWKER: The near-impossibility of campaign finance reform stems from the fact that it’s dependent on people that are benefitting from the status quo to change the status quo in a way that would disenfranchise themselves.
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Exactly, you know things got so messed up and deep rooted with people taking money, call it whatever you want, maybe a word that starts with ‘B’ but it’s hard to stop because the people who are taking it up top or the people taking it down below consider it part of their income, the money taken from candidates just for the right to be on a piece of paper. It does the city a complete injustice, a couple people are getting rich and the city is getting maybe-crappy people on the bench. And the story about the kid on the bike, that’s one story. I’ve been doing this twelve years, and I’ve seen maybe 50 to 100 things like that.
PHAWKER: How would you rate the integrity of the Philadelphia Police Department?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: I think there’s a lot of good officers, but, it’s almost the culture to come into court and flat out lie. It’s how the game works. According to them, every single gun is always sitting right there on the seat, right there on the passenger seat when the cops pull them over. I know criminals aren’t geniuses, but nobody’s that stupid. Every single drug sale, supposedly involves someone sticking their arm out, a drug dealer sticking their hand in their pocket, pulling out dope, holding it out at head level and then lowering it down slowly into the open hand. I think you should just come in and say, ‘I’ve been a cop ten years, I know what a drug sale looks like, I saw him do a hand to hand thing, I figured it was a drug sale, and I moved in, I arrested them.’ But don’t come in and flat out lie, it’s insulting it’s illegal, and it’s stupid. I think they do a wonderful job, but I question their honesty on the stand a lot of the time.
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: It’s perjury, it’s a felony, you should go to jail for it.
PHAWKER: How often do police get charged with perjury?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Zero. Never. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted just hours before Officer Christopher Hulmes was arrested for perjury.)
PHAWKER: Do you think that the FOP commands a disproportionate amount of political power in the city?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: Oh yeah, I really really have a problem with that. The arbitration committee that they have, there’s a saying, I think the cops even say it, ‘Anything short of murdering someone in uniform and you’re gonna get your job back.’
PHAWKER: What happened with the client you were defending on the dirt bike?
WILLIAM CIANCAGLINI: He’s still waiting to be sentenced, the guidelines offered three to six years in jail. I’m really hoping he gets house arrest or something, but the guidelines, if you go by the book, are three to six years. But he’s 24, for the rest of his life on every job application he fills out he has to put on ‘aggravated assault against a cop.’ You’re going to hire him? Come on!