By George Anastasia
Based on the "standards" set for corruption in Pennsylvania's First Senate District, the case against Larry Farnese seems penny ante at best.
Nevertheless, the 48-year-old South Philadelphia state senator begins the fight for his political life today, trying to refute the charge that he donated $6,000 in campaign funds to a college in order to convince a committeewoman to vote for him in a ward leader election that he won unanimously.
Jury selection began today before U.S. District Court Judge Cynthia Rufe. The trial is expected to last about a week.
Farnese holds the same senate seat that once belonged to Henry J. (Buddy) Cianfrani, the quintessential political wheeler-dealer who was convicted of padding his senate payroll with ghost employees. After Buddy there was Vincent Fumo whose political career ended when he was buried under a 137-count corruption conviction built around allegations of influence peddling and millions of dollars in misspent or misdirected cash.
Now a jury will decided whether a college donation to finance a study abroad program for the daughter of a committeewoman will send another first district senator to jail.
Farnese and committeewoman Ellen Chapman, 62, are charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud. Prosecutors allege that Chapman had originally intended to support someone else in the 2011 ward leader election but switched her support o Farnese after he made the donation.
Most of the facts in the case are not in dispute. What is at issue is the motive.
If a jury decides, as the government contends, that Farnese and Chapman agreed to a quid-pro-quo -- if, in fact, she agreed to support Farnese if he made the donation -- then legally it doesn't matter that he was elected unanimously by the 30 ward committee members. The fact that he didn't need her vote doesn't matter. The fact, as it has been suggested, that she didn't even cast a ballot in that election, is immaterial.
Prosecutors have called this a "bribery scheme" and say that Farnese tried to hide his actions by listing the $6,000 payment to Bard College as a "donation" to a scholarship fund. This "clear and direct quid pro quo will constitute the core of the government's case," prosecutors wrote in one pre-trial memo.
The government also intends to call Theodore Mucellin, a political consultant who worked with Farnese and who took part in the scheme, according to authorities. Mucellin is testfying under an immunity agreement, according to federal filings.
Farnese has denied the allegations laid out in the indictment. His lawyer, Mark B. Sheppard, has argued that the feds have no business getting involved in what was an internal matter involving the Eighth Ward Democratic Party organization. (The ward covers Center City, a big chunk of South Philadelphia and extends north to Port Richmond and Brewerytown.)
Sheppard contends that the government has literally made a federal case out of internal ward poltics, that the issues do not rise to the level of corruption, and that prosecutors have no jurisdiction.
To some observers it is another example of government overreach, of federal prosecutors losing sight of their mission, of investigators turning an impartial search for the truth into a crusade to win political convictions. Another recent example played out in the same federal courthouse last year where Dominic Verdi, the former Deputy Commissioner for Licenses and Inspection, was found not guilty of a series of criminal charges built on a flimsy house of cards that a jury quickly dismantled.
Sheppard is expected to urge the jury to use its common sense, to apply a standard that includes more than just the letter of the law, to look at the facts and the circumstances and the arena in which all of it played out.
This was ward politics, not government. This was and is the way the system functions.
But will a jury see it that way?
Prosecutors say it is their duty to investigate bribery and fraud wherever they find it.
Part of the interesting back story in the case is how and why federal authorities began looking at the ward leader election. Whether any of that comes out at trial is an interesting question. If ward politics is the issue, then the motives of everyone involved -- including anyone who brought the allegations of wrongdoing to the attention of authorities -- is certainly relevant.
In a pretrial motion seeking to have the charges dismissed, Sheppard argued that prosecutors had overstepped their authority and had criminalized what many consider routine ward politics. Sheppard argued that there was no bribe, but that even if there had been, the federal government had "no business" getting involved. At best, he contended, this was an issue for state election law and code enforcement.
Judge Rufe denied that motion, indicating that was an issue for the jury to decide.
With the indictment hanging over his head, Farnese was elected to a third four-year senate term in November. Voters apparently didn't find the charges reason enough to turn him out of office.
Now he hopes a federal jury feels the same way.
The late Buddy Cianfrani left the state senate and served 27 months in federal prison after he was convicted. He then returned to South Philadelphia.
And got right back into ward politics.
George Anastasia can be reached at email@example.com.