|The Philadelphia Inquirer/Ed Hille|
The way Ed Rendell tells the story, Herb Vederman came to him for advice.
"He wanted to get back into city government," Rendell explained on the witness stand about Vederman, a rich guy who served for years as Rendell's unpaid deputy mayor for economic development.
At the time, five Democrats were running for mayor of Philadelphia. And Vederman asked Rendell the political sage to pick the eventual winner.
Congressman Chaka Fattah "was the clear front-runner," Rendell testified he told Vederman. "He was well known and well-regarded." Rendell's advice to Vederman was to get involved with Fattah early in the 2007 mayoral campaign. So that when Fattah won, Vederman could go back to work in city government as Fattah's deputy mayor for economic development. Just like he did for Rendell.
But Fast Eddie sold Herbie a bum steer. Fattah wound up finishing fourth out of five candidates, behind eventual winner Michael Nutter. And what was Vederman's reward for getting involved with Chaka Fattah? A co-starring role in a 29-count RICO indictment that had the congressman at the top of the ticket.
At the Chaka Fattah racketeering trial today, Rendell spent nearly 90 minutes on the witness stand after he was called to testify on behalf of his old pal Vederman. The former governor wore a Navy blue suit, a striped tie and an American flag on his lapel.
"He became my friend," Rendell said in his raspy voice about Vederman. And Rendell would do anything to help a friend, he testified. So when Vederman wanted to become an ambassador, Randell went to bat for him.
"I thought Herb would be a good ambassador," Rendell told the jury. Even though Vederman was facing long odds.
"I didn't think he had a great chance," Rendell said. Why, asked Robert E. Welsh Jr., Vederman's lawyer.
Because there were plenty of other rich guys out there who wanted to be ambassadors, people who had raised lots of money for the Democratic party.
"He [Vederman] was competing against people who literally raised millions of dollars," Rendell said.
Why do politicians like to pick rich guys to serve as ambassadors?
There's a practical side to it, Rendell explained to the jury. When it comes to entertaining dignitaries, ambassadors don't have entertainment budgets and often ended up digging into their own pocket to pay the bill. That's why it's good to have men of means serving as ambassadors, Rendell testified.
At the Fattah trial, the feds claim that Vederman wanted to be an ambassador so bad that for years he was bribing Fattah by giving Fattah's son money to pay his college tuition, and giving Fattah's wife $18,000 for the phony purchase of a Porsche that never left the garage of former TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.
On cross-examination, Rendell was happy to spar with Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson. The big, burly former governor was clearly perturbed about the government's decision to indict his little buddy Herb, a theme he would expand on afterwards when he talked with reporters.
In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gibson asked Rendell how far he was willing to go to help a friend.
I'd do anything to help a friend, Rendell told the prosecutor, as long as it wasn't "illegal or immoral."
Gibson questioned Rendell about his relationship with Vederman, and whether it was similar to the relationship Vederman had with the congressman.
Vederman told you that he gave money to Fattah's son, didn't he, Gibson asked.
Yes, Rendell said.
Did he give your kids money too, Gibson asked.
Maybe for their birthdays, Rendell replied.
Doesn't doling out money to family members raise red flags, the prosecutor asked about Vederman.
Rendell didn't think so.
"Anything for a friend," Rendell said, before telling the prosecutor, "I hope you have friends like that."
"I appreciate your concern" for his welfare, the prosecutor replied sarcastically, adding, I didn't think you had any.
"Not much," Rendell admitted as the crowded courtroom broke into laughter.
Gibson asked Rendell about his attempts to lobby U.S. Senator Bob Casey to recommend Vederman for an ambassadorship. Rendell said that Casey had promised to recommend Vederman to the U.S. State Department.
Would you be surprised to know that when the senator came here to testify,he admitted he didn't do that, the prosecutor asked.
Rendell broke into a knowing smile.
"Not really," he said.
While they were on the subject of friends helping friends, the prosecutor asked Rendell if it was true that when Congressman Fattah was having financial troubles, if Rendell considered buying Fattah's house. So that instead of having to pay a mortgage to the bank, the congressman could have paid Rendell to keep his house.
Rendell said he did consider such a proposal, but he decided it "didn't make sense." Then he asked his wife about it.
"My wife would have none of it," Rendell said.
One of the alleged crimes Vederman is charged with is arranging the phony sale of a Porsche for $18,000 so that Congressman Fattah could use that money to purchase a vacation home in the Poconos. Meanwhile, the Porsche never changed hands, and stayed in Fattah's garage.
Do you know that it's a federal crime to lie on a mortgage application, the prosecutor asked Rendell.
"I think it's a federal crime to do almost anything," the former governor cracked while the courtroom again erupted in laughter.
Then, Rendell and Gibson duked it out over the alleged phony sale of the Porsche.
It wasn't a phony sale, Rendell told the jury. Herb owned the Porsche. If Herb's son, who liked Porsches, wanted that Porsche, Herb would have gotten it for him, Rendell said.
Didn't Vederman's son already own a Porsche, the prosecutor asked.
"People who like Porsches like a lot of Porsches," Rendell replied, to more laughter. "He [Vederman] didn't have a present need for it, he didn't have a place for it."
But, "It was his car," Rendell insisted. If the former governor had had a mid-life crisis back then, and he had asked Vederman for the Porsche, "I would have gotten it," Rendell told the jury.
When a lawyer for Congressman Fattah asked again about the Porsche, the 72-year-old Rendell insisted that if he had a "senior-citizen crisis" and "I wanted the Porsche, Herb would have gotten it to me."
When he left the witness stand, the hunched-over Rendell walked slowly down the hallway outside the courtroom, taking the time to chat with many well-wishers. Then he obliged reporters by doing an impromptu press conference on the sidewalk outside the courthouse.
When he talked to reporters, Rendell soke passionately about his concern for Vederman, whom he said, worked 60 hours a week year after year as his unpaid deputy mayor. He was never in it for the glory, Rendell said. So that's why Rendell showed up in court today to testify on Vederman's behalf. It was all about friendship.
"Herb can't help me, I can't help Herb," Rendell said. "I have no power any more."
But he could still work a crowd if reporters, as well as a jury.
"This is a real overreach by the government," Rendell declared about the indictment of Vederman.
"He's a fine human being," Rendell said about his friend. "They've ruined his life."
Rendell gave a sermon on prosecutors. As a former district attorney, he said, he was a cynical guy. Prosecutors are cynical, Rendell said. They always see the worst in people. They don't understand politics. They think the only reason people in politics do things is because they want something in return.
But some things "are done out of friendship," Rendell said. That's what Vederman was doing when he was helping out the congressman, Rendell said. Acting out of friendship. "Not to get an ambassadorship."
"We're not all bad," Rendell said about his fellow politicians. "We're not all evil."
We don't do everything for "an ulterior motive," he said.
But when a TV reporter asked Rendell about the indictment of the congressman, Rendell drew a line.
I came here to testify for Herb Vederman, Rendell said. The allegations against Congressman Fattah are "serious charges," Rendell said. And if they are proven, "He [Fattah] should be found guilty, he should go to jail."
But as far as the indictment of Vederman is concerned, it's "a horrible prosecutorial overreach," Rendell said.
He told reporters how the feds tried to get Vederman to testify against the congressman before the indictment came out.
"I'll tell you what I know," Rendell quoted Vederman as telling the feds, "I'll take a lie detector test."
But it wasn't enough.
Rendell reiterated that the feds had ruined Vederman's life. A guy who was always "happy and upbeat" now is always down in the dumps, Rendell lamented.
If Fattah gets convicted and Vederman gets acquitted, Rendell told reporters before he got into his car, they'll run the Fattah conviction on the front page.
And if Vederman gets acquitted, "They'll run it on page 47," Rendell said.