By George Anastasia
It was a lesson in political pragmatism delivered by the defense attorney for beleaguered State Senator Larry Farnese at the opening of Farnese's corruption trial.
You don't pay a bribe with a check, lawyer Mark Sheppard told the U.S. District Court jury that will decide Farnese's fate. And you don't pay a bribe for one vote when you need 30.
"This isn't how bribery is done," Sheppard said. "This isn't how criminals act."
In a brief but pointed opening statement that outlined the defense strategy in the trial, Sheppard asked the jury to use "common sense" in evaluating the charges against his client and co-defendant Ellen Chapman, a Democratic Party ward committeewoman.
The two are charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud in what prosecutors said was a bribery scheme to insure Farnese's election as ward leader in Philadelphia's eighth ward back in 2011. Authorities allege that Farnese donated $6,000 from his campaign fund to help underwrite a study abroad program for Chapman's daughter. In turn, the prosecutors said, Chapman agreed to vote for Farnese in the ward election.
"Senator Farnese paid a bribe in exchange for her vote," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis said in his opening to the jury this morning, later adding that Chapman willingly sold her vote.
That quid pro quo is at the heart of the government's case against Farnese, 48, and Chapman, 62. The trial, before Judge Cynthia Rufe, is expected to last about a week and will provide an inside look at the workings of ward politics.
Few of the facts in the case are in dispute. But the defense has argued that the government misinterpreted and misconstrued the actions of both defendants.
"This case will offend your sense of justice...your sense of right and wrong," Stuart Patchen, Chapman's lawyer, said in his initial remarks. Both Patchen and Sheppard argued that the ward vote and the financing for the study abroad program were two separate and unrelated issues.
The government, on the other hand, says they were intertwined and were the crux of what they contend was a quid pro quo "bribery scheme."
The jury heard testimony this afternoon from FBI Agent Chad Speicher who handled the investigation. His testimony focused on a series of emails and phone calls during the alleged conspiracy.
Two key witnesses in the case, Theodore Mucellin and Stephen Huntingdon, are expected to take the stand when the trial resumes Wednesday morning. Mucellin, who is testifying under a grant of immunity, is a political consultant who worked for Farnese and who, the government contends, took part in the conspiracy by helping to expedite the loan-for-vote scheme.
Huntingdon is a ward committeeman who planned to run against Farnese for ward leader in 2011, but dropped out of the race. Huntington is expected to testify about a tearful phone call he received from Chapman in May 2011 in which she told him she was shifting her support to Farnese. He has told authorities that his impression was Chapman had shifted her support because Farnese was going to help with the study abroad financing.
In fact, the defense argued, Farnese did agree to help after learning that Chapman's daughter Hannah, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, had been accepted in a summer study abroad program in Kyrgyzstan but lacked the money -- $14,000 -- needed for tuition and other expenses.
The program was run by Bard College in New York.
The defense pointed to emails in which Farnese put Chapman in touch with potential scholarship and grant programs run by PNC Bank, Comcast and Verizon. Ultimately, Farnese decided to use the discretionary fund from the Friends of Farnese, his political campaign fund, to donate $6,000 to the Bard program. The donation was made by check and included in the memo field the name of the study program as well as Chapman's daughter's name.
There was never any attempt to hide what was happening, Sheppard told the jury. Nor, he said, was there ever a bribe.
"If you're gonna bribe somebody, you gonna do it by check?" he asked the jury.
"This was never a bribe. There never was any discussion of it being a bribe."
Both he and Patchen argued that Farnese was providing a "constituent service" that had nothing to do with courting Chapman's vote. What's more, Sheppard said, Farnese was eventually elected unanimously by acclamation at a ward meeting in the fall of 2011.
The government contends that the mere agreement between Chapman and Farnese was a crime, regardless of the vote. Prosecutors said Chapman had violated her fiduciary responsibility as a committeewoman and was guilty of "honest services fraud."
FBI Agent Speicher testified that a review of the hundreds of donations made by the Friends of Farnese indicated that the $6,000 donation to Bard College was by far the largest. Most were for $1,000 or less, he said. He also pointed out that only four donations were made to institutions outside of Pennsylvania and that the other three were each for $250.
Chapman's attorney said the donation was a story of "a mother, a daughter and a state senator" and how an elected official tried to help someone in his district. Sheppard hit on that same theme.
"There was never a this for that," he said of the donation. "It was a good deed....Don't let them (the government) make this into something dirty."
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.