By Ralph Cipriano
A Democratic committeeman from the 8th Ward got his dander up today when a prosecutor asked if state Senator Larry Farnese had offered him money in exchange for his vote to make Farnese ward leader.
"Don't be silly," Sam Hopkins, a 20-year veteran of the ward, yelled at Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis on cross-examination. "It's just not done."
A minute later, Hopkins indignantly asked the prosecutor, "Young man, where are you from?" The prosecutor started to answer before he thought better of it, and shut up.
The defense was putting on its case today in the federal fraud trial of the state senator, which has struck many observers, including the judge, as a possible example of prosecutorial overreach. Farnese is charged with allegedly buying the vote of Ellen Chapman, a Democratic committee woman who is his co-defendant, by lining up a $6,000 scholarship for Chapman's daughter.
In the eyes of the government, that $6,000 scholarship, which came from a political action committee, was a bribe that helped Farnese get elected ward leader. But Farnese's lawyers have characterized the scholarship as a good deed, the type of thing that legislators routinely do for their constituents.
Chapman's daughter, Hannah Feldman, was the first defense witness of the day. She told the jury that she was a University of Pennsylvania freshman short on cash back in 2011 when she was trying to raise money to pay for a study abroad program in Kyrgyzstan that cost $24,000.
"There hadn't been a study abroad program in that region," Feldman told the jury. That's why Feldman, who had previously studied abroad in Moscow, wanted to go to Kyrgyzstan. To get into the study abroad program, which was being offered by Bard College, Feldman had to take a semester off from Penn, and write an essay on why she deserved to go. That essay won her a $10,000 scholarship, but she was still $14,000 short.
That's when her parents enlisted the help of the state senator, whom she referred to on the witness stand as "Larry."
"Lucky for me both my parents know him," she emailed another college student about Larry, so "access wasn't a problem."
Feldman was connected. Her mother was a committee woman in Farnese's ward. Her father, David Feldman, another Farnese constituent, is a prominent member of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club.
Her family could always count on Larry for help, Feldman testified. That's the politician her family turned to when Feldman needed a sumer job. And when Hannah lost her health insurance in college, it was Larry who helped her enroll in a government health care program.
Besides being connected, Hannah Feldman was a fast-tallker on the witness stand as she read emails into the record that were trial exhibits.
"That was impressive," Mark Sheppard, Farnese's lawyer said, after Feldman stopped talking.
"I can go faster if you want," Feldman said. "My mom joked I could be an auctioneer."
Judge Cynthia M. Rufe told the witness she was "glad we have a tape-recorder" in the courtroom, because Feldman was talking too fast for a court reporter.
The defense today called as witnesses several members of the Democratic committee from the 8th Ward, where Farnese was accused of buying Chapman's vote to become ward leader.
Stephen Stringer, a retired lawyer, testified that it was obvious that "Larry Farnese had this nomination locked up," so he didn't have to buy votes.
Did you ask for any money for your vote, the prosecutor asked.
"I did not," Stringer said.
Sam Hopkins, the Democratic committeeman who got testy with the prosecutor, testified that he was one of a group of volunteers who made phone calls to all 50 committee members, to see who they were supporting for ward leader.
The results of the straw poll: Farnese had "all but approximately 10 votes" locked up, Hopkins said. This was before Farnese made "one phone call" on his own behalf, Hopkins said.
The job of ward leader isn't exactly a glamorous job, Hopkins seemed to be saying. It doesn't come with any salary.
"Nobody seems to want it," Hopkins said about the post. Our ward, Hopkins told the jury, "is not a hotbed for political candidates."
"Except for Larry," he added.
Jovida Hill was another former committee woman from the 8th Ward who testified today in Farnese's defense.
In her view, Farnese did not have a serious competitor for the job of ward leader, which became vacant when former ward leader Stephanie Singer stepped down.
"He was our state senator," Hill said about Farnese. And he was honest.
"He's never lied to me," Hill said.
"There was no question Larry was the heir apparent," Avi Eden, another committeeman, told the jury.
Eden testified that Farnese wasn't the type of politician who did anything underhanded. In fact, Eden said, people worried that Farnese was too nice a guy.
"Many of us are surprised that he [Farnese] survived this long in politics," Eden said.
The last witness of the day, Valerie Singleton, told the jury about how for the past three years, that nice guy Farnese had been a big brother to her grandson.
"He's very honest," she said about the state senator.
After the defense ran out of witnesses, the judge adjourned court until 9:30 a.m. Monday. The judge announced she was taking under advisement a defense motion to dismiss the case.
In court Thursday, according to Jeremy Roebuck of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the judge said during a break that the defense had made "strong" arguments on why the case against Farnese and Chapman should be dismissed. And that the legal battle over whether to toss the case was going to be "terribly close."
The judge is expected to rule on that motion after the defense puts on its final witnesses Monday.