|Senator Casey at the Chaka trial/philly.com/David Swanson|
He's a former clothing store magnate and lobbyist who gravitates to politicians the way a groupie chases rock stars.
In the past decade, he's given away more than $100,000 to some of his favorite Democrats. But what he really wanted to do was become a U.S. ambassador.
Herb Vederman, Ed Rendell's former unpaid deputy mayor, was also best buddies with Congressman Chaka Fattah.
Herb and Chaka were so close that for years, Fattah pushed Vederman for an ambassador's post. The congressman went as far as to sign and hand-deliver a letter to President Obama on Oct. 30, 2010, advocating for Vederman's appointment as U.S. Ambassador to anywhere.
But standing in the way of Vederman's lifelong goal was U.S. Senator Bob Casey. The Pennsylvania Democrat made a VIP appearance at the Chaka Fattah trial today to explain how he declined Congressman Fattah's request to support Vederman's candidacy for an ambassadorship in 2008, even though Casey was happy to continue to accept campaign donations from Vederman. Herb was sure disappointed about not getting that ambassadorship, the senator testified, and he expressed that disappointment twice directly to Casey.
|Herb and his lawyer/philly.com/Yong Kim|
Aside from a couple of star cooperating witnesses who ratted out the congressman, the Chaka trial has been a relentlessly boring parade of government bureaucrats, accountants and auditors.
On the witness stand after lunch was another scintillating government witness. Jacqueline Rousseau was supervisory program manager from the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]'s Educational Partnership Program [EPP]. She was testifying about irregularities in a $50,000 grant procured for a Congressman Fattah conference on education.
Cue the yawns.
Suddenly, to accommodate Casey's schedule, the government put the NOAA-EPP wonk in a side room and ushered in the senator and his entourage.
It was an amazing moment at the Chaka trial. For once, everyone in the courtroom was conscious and listening to what the witness had to say.
According to the Fattah indictment, Vederman "dearly coveted" an ambassador post, so Fattah began lobbying on his behalf "almost as soon as the ballots were counted in the 2008 presidential election," the indictment said.
In a letter prepared for Fattah's signature, the indictment said, Fattah wrote that "Vederman was willing to serve as an ambassador almost anywhere in the world, including hardship posts."
One of those letters written by the congressman in support of Vederman was sent to Casey in 2008. The prosecutor read the letter in court today to the jury.
"The request was for an ambassadorship," Casey recalled. "You don't get many of those."
On the witness stand, Senator Casey acknowledged that he had been an early supporter of Barack Obama's campaign for president. As a result, after Obama won, people "probably" believed that Casey had pull with the president, the senator said.
Did Congressman Fattah ever personally lobby you on behalf of an ambassadorship for Vederman, the prosecutor asked.
"Not that I recall," the senator said.
How about Governor Rendell, the prosecutor asked.
"Not that I recall," the senator said.
Casey was in a position to aid Vederman in his quest for an ambassadorship, he said, because he's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But when Fattah wrote the senator seeking his support for an ambassador's post on behalf of Vederman, "I wasn't prepared to do that," the senator admitted, without explaining why.
It made for an awkward moment the next time he called Vederman to ask for more campaign cash, Casey told the jury.
"I called him to ask for support," Casey testified about Vederman. "He expressed disappointment" about not getting that ambassadorship, the senator said. "Not only disappointment but real frustration."
Another time, Casey said, he was on his way to a local campaign event when he ran into Vederman in the doorway.
"Vederman approached me about the position" of ambassador again, Casey said. And Vederman "expressed disappointment" that he "hadn't heard from the administration" about his candidacy for ambassador, Casey said.
On cross-examination, Samuel W. Silver, representing Congressman Fattah, had only one question for Senator Casey.
Was there anything wrong with Congressman Fattah requesting in a letter that the senator support Vederman for an ambassador's post?
"No," Casey said.
Silver sat down. Up next on cross was Catherine M. Recker, representing Vederman.
Since you were an early supporter of President Obama, Recker said, didn't you get a lot of requests from people seeking appointments who thought you had some kind of pull with the president?
"I would guess that I did," Casey said. He said that after Obama won the election, the senator received about 200 such requests from people seeking jobs in the new administration.
That was it for cross-examination. After some 20 minutes on the stand, the senator was dismissed as a witness by Judge Harvey Bartle III.
"Thanks very much for coming, Senator," the judge said.
Outside the courthouse, the senator told reporters he had no idea when Congessman Fattah was sponsoring Vederman for an ambassadorship that the feds would subsequently accuse Vederman of bribing the congressman.
"I was called to testify by the prosecution for the simple purpose of confirming the receipt of a letter from the congressman," Casey told Deanna Durante of NBC 10. "It was a simple matter to testify to."
In the Fattah indictment, Vederman is described as the former finance director of the ill-fated Fattah for mayor campaign of 2007. When the trial opened, a government prosecutor claimed that Congressman Fattah used Vederman like a "human ATM machine."
The government contends that despite the sale, the car remained in the TV anchor's garage.
"In exchange for Fattah's official action and influence, Vederman provided money to Fattah on multiple occasions," the indictment said. "Vederman also agreed to sponsor a visa for Fattah's live-in au pair and paid a portion of the au pair's college tuition," the indictment charges. Regarding the alleged bribe, the government accused Vederman of wiring an $18,000 payment so that Fattah could "deceive the Credit Union Mortgage Association, Inc. in qualifying for a mortgage on the purchase of a vacation home in the Poconos."
In response to the indictment, Vederman's lawyer has said that the government had cherry-picked and twisted the facts of a friendship into something sinister. That's why Vederman pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Vederman made his money in his family's clothing business, a nationwide chain of Fashion Bug stores. But then he got out of the business, became a consultant, and a lobbyist.
When Rendell ran for mayor in 1991, Vederman functioned as a full-time campaign aid, always riding with the candidate. In a 1996 interview, Rendell told The Philadelphia Inquirer why Herb was so valuable.
"Herb is one of the most solid and dependable people you'll ever want to meet and one of the most loyal friends you'll ever want to meet," Rendell told the Inquirer in 1996. "He was an invaluable fundraiser and he was also the mother hen of the campaign staff," Rendell said. "If someone had an insurance bill they couldn't pay because of low campaign salaries, Herb would pay the insurance bill. He has a great heart."
Prior to getting indicted with Fattah, Vederman's previous claim to fame was when he was implicated in the "Boobgate" scandal. That was the caper where Vederman and another Rendell aide got outed in the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996 for procuring three strippers for a bachelor party for Vederman's cousin.
"'Boobgate' scandal: Ed's aides star in topless fling," was the Daily News headline.
During the party, according to press accounts, strippers draped their breasts on top of an unsuspecting Vederman's head, prompting a new nickname for Vederman, "Herbie the Hat."
But all he really wanted to be was Ambassador Vederman. Instead, he wound up as Chaka Fattah's co-conspirator.