|A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment . . .|
The government saw an international bribery conspiracy in a $6,000 scholarship that state Senator Larry Farnese arranged for the daughter of a Democratic committee woman who wanted to study abroad in Central Asia.
But a jury didn't see it that way. After a week-long trial, a jury today found Farnese and Ellen Chapman, the Democratic committee woman who was Farnese's co-defendant, not guilty on all 13 charges in an overblown federal indictment that alleged conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, as well as violations of the U.S. Travel Act.
For Farnese, it was the end of a 14-month ordeal that began with a grand jury investigation. The news that the FBI was snooping around Farnese's 2011 election as ward leader hit The Philadelphia Inquirer last April. The federal indictment of Farnese and Chapman was announced a month later.
"I always believed that this day would come," an emotional Farnese said today. "I'm an attorney and an elected official and so I never lost faith in the system. In fact, what happened today just reaffirms my faith in the system."
"I thank God," Farnese said. "You don't get through this without prayers."
And then Farnese thanked a lot of other people, including the judge, the jury and his lawyers.
He also thanked his legal team, which included Mark Sheppard, Arianna Goodman and Peter Goldberger.
"They were amazing lawyers who stood by me and they believed in me from day one," Farnese said. "I am completely exonerated. Now, I get to go back and do what I love doing, and that is representing the people is the first [Senatorial] district."
Farnese, who, after the trial took his mother out for a late lunch at Buddakan, Third and Chestnut, barely had time to eat because his cell phone was flooded with calls from all over the state.
"All the friends that he didn't know he had, all the people who ignored him for the past 14 months because they thought he was dead, they're all calling him up now to congratulate him," a friend cracked.
Farnese's lawyers were elated.
"I'm grateful to the judge and the jury that they were able to see through this and see what I saw all along, that there was never a crime here," Mark Sheppard said.
Asked if the federal prosecutors were guilty of an overreach, Sheppard said, "They have a job to do," before adding, "Now Larry can get back to what he does best, helping people."
It was helping people that got Farnese in trouble with the feds. They viewed the scholarship that Farnese arranged through a political action committee as a bribe that bought the vote of Democratic Committeewoman Chapman in the election of Farnese as ward leader in 2011.
Farnese, who was unopposed in that election, won the job of ward leader by voice vote. Chapman wasn't even in the room when the vote went down, but the feds still believed that she had sold her vote.
During the trial, Sheppard called as a witness Lawrence J. Tabas, an expert on Pennsylvania election law. Tabas testified that it was "quite common" for candidate committees in Pennsylvania to pay for scholarships for students in their districts. Tabas then went through dozens of examples where other state legislators had done exactly that.
Although the case ended happily for the defendants, there were some anxious moments at the federal courthouse before the verdict came in.
Before the jury ever got the case, the judge became aware that a couple of jurors were upset. In a closing argument one of the defense lawyers, Elizabeth Toplin, who represented Chapman, had mentioned all of the jurors' names while she was imploring them to acquit her client.
The judge's solution was to question all the jurors behind closed doors, in the presence of all the lawyers in the case. The judge wanted to see just how upset the jurors were, and if they could remain impartial before they began deliberations. One juror who, apparently, in the view of the judge wasn't gong to be impartial, was dismissed from the jury.
The next day, the jury came back with their verdict of acquittal on all the charges.