Friday, July 18, 2014

When A Reporter Crosses The Line

By Ralph Cipriano

The president of the FOP says there are credible allegations that two Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News reporters behaved unethically by buying diapers and food and paying utility bills for a woman they wrote about who accused police of misconduct.

If the allegations are true, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says, the reporters crossed an ethical line and may have tainted the criminal investigation of the cops accused of misconduct.

In the wake of the charges, Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker aren't talking, and neither are their editors. Only new owner and interim Inquirer Publisher H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest has spoken. "We stand behind the work of our reporters," Lenfest said in a canned statement defending the Daily News and its prize-winning series, "Tainted Justice." But Lenfest's statement also said that "if such 'sound evidence' exists, we will pursue it."

One impeccable source, however, has already stated in writing that the reporters crossed the line by giving gifts and buying food for another character in their series. The source is Wendy Ruderman, who in her book BUSTED A tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, discloses that she bought groceries and gave gifts to former police informant Ventura "Benny" Martinez, who in Tainted Justice, also accused the police of misconduct.

"As journalists, Barbara [Laker] and I couldn't give him money, but we tried to help him in other ways," Ruderman writes on pg. 169 of BUSTED. "I bought him groceries, rushing over to his home with bags of vegetables, turkey and Dora the Explorer fruit snacks. I bought his son a Razor scooter for his birthday and told Benny to say it was from him. I wondered if Benny sold the scooter for drugs, but at the time, I was so plagued with guilt that I couldn't see through his manipulation and lies."

"Barbara and I knew the things we did for Benny crossed the line," Ruderman wrote. "But that line -- the one between reporter and human being -- got blurry."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Leonetti Rips Uncle, Says Cousin Didn't Have A Chance

By George Anastasia

Defense attorneys for Nicodemo S. Scarfo said repeatedly during his federal fraud trial that Scarfo,
49, was targeted for prosecution because of the reputation and notoriety of his father, jailed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo D. "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

The jury, of course, saw it differently, convicting the younger Scarfo of all 25 counts he faced in the looting of FirstPlus Financial, a Texas mortgage company.

But now another voice has weighed in in Scarfo's defense. It's not a defense of what he did, but rather an explanation for how he ended up where he did. And it's also a plea for some consideration from Judge Robert Kugler when he sentences Scarfo in October.

The younger Scarfo never had a chance, said his cousin, mobster-turned-government witness Philip Leonetti.

"He's really not a gangster," Leonetti, 61, said in a telephone interview with Bigtrial this week. "His father had him under his spell...I used to tell him, 'Nicky, get away from these guys.' And when he was talking to me, he would agree' But then he would talk to his father and..."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Inky Vs. The Daily News

Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman and Michael Days
By Ralph Cipriano

First it was the former owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer who couldn't get along. They wound up suing each other in court over the firing of Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow, amid charges of  newsroom meddling.

Then it was the top editors of the Inquirer and Daily News who squared off over an Inky story about police corruption that supposedly cast the two reporters who wrote the tabloid's 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning series, "Tainted Justice," in a negative light.

According to several newsroom sources, two top editors of the Daily News -- Editor Michael Days and Assistant Managing Editor Gar Joseph -- lobbied heavily and even threatened to resign if new owner and interim Inquirer Publisher H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest ran an Inky story scheduled for last Sunday's paper written by Inky staff writers Mike Newall and Aubrey Whelan.

Lenfest settled the dispute by killing the Inky story, according to several sources. Then it was Inky Editor Bill Marimow's turn to get upset about newsroom meddling. There was talk on the rumor mill about Marimow threatening to resign, but he didn't go anywhere. Now it appears the veteran Inky editor may be digging in for a longer fight.

"It's an internal matter, and it's not open for discussion," Marimow wrote in a terse email, when asked about the killed story.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Don Manno Gets His Life Back

By George Anastasia

Don Manno sat in Seasons 52, a posh restaurant at the Cherry Hill Mall one day this week, eating a piece of salmon and talking about the future.

But the past, the immediate past, kept intruding into his conversation.

It was one week exactly from the day a jury in U.S. District Court in Camden had given him his life back. Manno was calm, relaxed and philosophical about the experience. He had beaten federal prosecutors in a grueling six-month trial in which his freedom and future as an attorney were on the line.

It shouldn't have come to that, the veteran defense attorney said.

"I think the federal prosecutors thought they were going to teach us all a lesson about how to practice law," Manno said. "I don't need them to tell me how to be a lawyer. I did nothing wrong. If a jury had questioned what I did then I might think differently. But federal prosecutors aren't going to tell me how to be a lawyer."

That was as close as Manno, 68, came to displaying any of the anger and bitterness that lingers from the FirstPlus Financial fraud case in which he was ensnarled. For the most part, he was sanguine, profusely thanking and praising his wife Rita and his grown daughters Kimberley and Rebecca for helping him through an ordeal that, he says, will make him a better lawyer.

"I think I always had the ability to relate to my clients, to understand intellectually what they were going through," he said. "But now I think I have an emotional understanding. When you get a knock on your door at six in the morning and they take you away in handcuffs, you have a different understanding of the process."

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Judge Rules Fumo Can Travel Without Advance Approval

By Ralph Cipriano

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter has decided that former state Senator Vincent J. Fumo can travel freely throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey without needing advance approval from his parole officer.

Fumo's lawyer, Dennis Cogan, had filed a motion on June 17th seeking to modify Fumo's travel restrictions. Cogan filed the motion after Fumo's parole officer denied him permission to visit his condo at the Jersey Shore and a 99-acre farm his fiancee owns outside Harrisburg.

Because it's Vince Fumo we're talking about, the government filed a motion in opposition, which was  immediately trumpeted as big news by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The prosecutors who put Fumo away for 61 months wanted to require the defendant to notify his parole officer in advance, as well as get her authorization before he went anywhere while on probation.

But today, Judge Buckwalter issued an order granting the defendant's motion with one stipulation. Every Monday, the judge wrote, Fumo has to supply his probation officer with an itinerary for the week "setting forth where and when he intends to be."

"Billy Doe" Story Wins Catholic Press Association Award

By Ralph Cipriano

A lengthy summary story about "Billy Doe," based on reporting originally done for big, has won first prize for best investigative reporting from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada.

The story, "Star witness' story in Philadelphia sex abuse trials doesn't add up," ran in the April 29, 2013 edition of the National Catholic Reporter. Labeled an "analysis" by NCR, the nearly 6,000-word story examined  a "compromised investigation," a "flawed grand jury report," and the many contradictory stories told by Billy Doe.

Doe is the former 10-year-old altar boy and drug addict who claimed at two historic Philadelphia sex abuse trials that he was raped by two priests and a school teacher. Three men are currently in jail because of Doe's stories. A fourth defendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn, was convicted on one count of endangering the welfare of a child, but that conviction was overturned by an appeals court.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Scarfo, Pelullo, Maxwell Brothers Guilty In FirstPlus Trial

By George Anastasia

Mobster Nicodemo S. Scarfo and his business associate Salvatore Pelullo were convicted today of looting a Texas-based mortgage company of more than $12 million through a series of phony business deals and bogus consulting contracts.

Scarfo, 49, the son of jailed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo D. "Little Nicky" Scarfo, was described by the government as the behind-the-scenes power in the secret takeover of FirstPlus Financial in 2007.

Pelullo, 47, an Elkins Park businessman with two prior fraud convictions, was the point man in the scheme, according to authorities. A wannabe wiseguy who quoted lines from The Godfather and brought a street corner swagger to business meetings, Pelullo was accused of using threats and intimidation to force company officials to do his bidding.

The anonymous chosen jury, which deliberated for parts of 10 days over two weeks, also convicted former FirstPlus CEO John Maxwell and Maxwell's brother, William, a lawyer who worked as special counsel for FirstPlus. The jury found lawyers David Adler, Gary McCarthy and Donald Manno not guilty of the charges they faced.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Drexel University's Police Brutality Scandal

By Ralph Cipriano

On Dec. 30, 2011, a Drexel University police officer was caught on camera using his 4,000-pound police SUV to ram a fleeing suspect.

The suspect, Walter Johnson, then 43, of West Philadelphia, was crushed against a concrete wall and pinned  there for 13 seconds before the cop threw his SUV in reverse.  Johnson, who was unarmed, suffered multiple pelvis fractures and a fracture of his right lower leg "with bones protruding through the skin." His injuries were detailed in a police brutality lawsuit filed last year in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court by Philadelphia lawyer Robert J. Levant.

It was a completely unjustified use of deadly force by Drexel University Police Officer Robert Allen, the lawsuit claims. But that was just the start of the alleged police misconduct in the case. The lawsuit alleges a coverup by the Drexel University police that went all the way to the top.

According to a report by an expert witness for the plaintiff, former Drexel University Police Chief Edward Spangler violated police procedures by telling the Philadelphia Police Department not to investigate the use of deadly force by one of his officers. Instead, former Chief Spangler, who was hosting a party at his home that night for his top commanders, decided that the incident was just an auto accident. He made this decision without ever leaving the party, visiting the scene or reviewing any video.

Walter Johnson was arrested and charged with attempted burglary, criminal conspiracy, attempted criminal trespass, possession of instruments of a crime and criminal mischief. But after the Philadelphia District Attorney's office got a look at the video, the D.A. decided not to prosecute. All charges against Johnson were dismissed.


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