Tuesday, June 7, 2016
If you're on trial for racketeering in Philadelphia and you need a character witness, it's hard to beat Sister Mary Scullion.
The longtime homeless advocate whose fans include Pope Francis, President Obama, and Jon Bon Jovi showed up at the trial of Congressman Chaka Fattah today to go to bat for one of Fattah's co-defendants, former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Herb Vederman.
"It's widely known that he [Vederman] performs acts of generosity on many occasions," the Sister of Mercy nun told the jury. On the witness stand, Sister Mary described Vederman as a "good friend of mine" that she last saw a few weeks ago.
A nosy prosecutor immediately asked at that last get-together, if the nun and Vederman had discussed Vederman's racketeering case.
"I was just asking how he was doing, the nun replied dismissively. "Everybody knows there's a trial going on."
The prosecutor wisely let it go at that.
It's the fourth week of the Fattah trial, and the defense is finally getting to put on its case.
So far, the Fattah trial has been about as exciting as watching a live forensic audit. The main storyline in the case is about an alleged plot to get around campaign finance laws by laundering a $1 million loan from a billionaire through several friends of the congressman to pay for the expenses of the failed Fattah for mayor campaign of 2007.
The first three weeks of the trial featured a lackluster cast of FBI agents, government bureaucrats and accountants describing financial maneuvers allegedly masterminded by the congressman to pay for his campaign bills, the college loans of his son, and a vacation home in the Poconos.
It's made for a pretty dull show.
So far, in their first full day of testimony, the defense wasn't doing much better by parading a bunch of character witnesses in front of the jury.
In Pennsylvania courts, character witnesses are limited to a really dull script. They can only say that they are familiar with a defendant's reputation in the community for say, honesty, generosity or being law-abiding. And then the character witness is limited to stating in court what that reputation is, usually in two or three words or less.
Asked about Vederman's reputation for generosity, Sister Mary replied, "Excellent," before expanding on that theme, much to the dismay of prosecutors.
It was Vederman's reputation for generosity that got him indicted in the racketeering case. The prosecution has claimed that Fattah used the wealthy Vederman as a "human ATM machine." In exchange, the prosecutors claim, Congressman Fatttah lobbied every VIP in Washington, including President Obama and Senator Bob Casey, in another failed political campaign to make Vederman an ambassador.
While the defense was parading its cast of character witnesses in front of the jury, one faithful spectator who usually brings his pool cues with him to court was observed napping with his eyes closed, head back and mouth wide open.
Jurors appeared listless; a court officer rubbed his eyes.
It was that boring.
As he came into court after a recess, Vederman told a TV reporter, "Sometimes I don't know what I'm doing here."
The TV reporter agreed.
Meanwhile, the congressman was being his usual upbeat self, walking around with a smile on his face and telling one supporter, "I'm doing well, how you doing?"
The big question is if any of the defendants will take the stand. So far, the lawyers are saying those decisions haven't been made yet.
When they weren't parading character witnesses, defenses lawyers in the case were introducing witnesses who would hopefully cast doubt on the credibility of the congressman's main accusers, two political consultants and former Fattah confidantes named Thomas Lindenfeld and Greg Naylor.
Lindenfeld and Naylor are the guys who, after they got caught lying to the FBI, are pointing the finger at Fattah, saying there's the guy who made me do it. But it's all word of mouth. The congressman's name isn't on any letters, documents or emails. All the jury has to go on is the word of the two informants, who are singing like canaries to get themselves out of their own pressing legal jams.
In court today, Barry Gross, a former prosecutor who represents Robert Brand, one of Fattah's co-defendants, called William P. Lightfoot to the stand.
Lightfoot, a lawyer and politician from Washington D.C., had his name and address listed on what the feds say was a phony application for a fraudulent nonprofit environmental group known as the "Blue Guardians."
The Blue Guardians were supposed to educate poor communities about environmental safety, but in reality, the feds said, the Blue Guardians never did anything. It was just a scam intended to steal tax dollars.
The only problem with listing Lightfoot's name and address on the application, Lightfoot said, was that he never gave Lindenfeld permission to use his name or address "on any document."
The implication was that Lindenfeld was a sleaze ball who could not be trusted
After he was contacted by the FBI, Lightfoot told the jury, he wrote Lindenfeld an email, requesting that his name be removed from the documents. Lindenfeld wrote back 44 days later, Gross noted, saying it was OK for Lightfoot to "resign" from the Blue Guardians because the group was defunct.
As they did throughout the day, government prosecutors objected strenuously to what Lightfoot had to say and there were frequent sidebars, where the judge advised the prosecutors to "calm down."
The trial resumes tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.