Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Murder, Mayhem And Philadelphia Politics

John Street
By George Anastasia

File this one  under politics and strange bedfellows ... VERY strange bedfellows.

Drugs, money and murder have been the primary focus of the prosecution's case in the racketeering trial of cocaine kingpin Kaboni Savage.

But the month-long trial also has offered a look at the dark side of Philadelphia politics, a fascinating back story that has been referred to repeatedly in testimony, on wiretaps and in statements by defense attorneys.

In fact, it was the FBI investigation of Savage and fellow drug kingpin Gerald "Bubby" Thomas in 2003 that spawned a major political corruption investigation and the bugging of then Mayor John Street's City Hall office.

That bug was discovered less than two weeks after it had been secreted into the mayor's inner sanctum and was removed before Street "could say anything that would get him in trouble," Savage's lawyer, Christian Hoey, said in his opening statement to the jury back on Feb. 4.

Hoey has come back to the political probe several times, most recently in his cross-examination earlier this week of Paul Daniels, Bubby Thomas' son. Daniels was a major player in the Savage-Thomas drug network. He is one of several who decided to plead guilty and cooperate.
Shamsud-din Ali

Among other things, he told the jury this week that shortly before he, his father and Savage were charged in 2004, Thomas believed they had dodged a bullet and would not be indicted.

"He told me the feds were interested in Shamsud-din and the mayor," Daniels said.

Shamsud-din would be Shamsud-din Ali, a once powerful imam in the city's Muslim community and the man, authorities say, who was the nexus between the drug underworld and city politics. Ali had a foot in both camps. And his hand in everyone's pocket, according to both law enforcement and underworld sources.

It was while listening to a wiretapped conversation between Bubby Thomas and Ali that the FBI first heard any reference to City Hall corruption. Ali's comments, picked up during the drug investigation, were then used to support the launching of a separate probe into the Street administration.

Street was never charged with any wrongdoing and was never suspected of having any ties to the drug underworld. Authorities made it clear that there were two separate investigations -- one into drug dealing and the other into City Hall corruption. The only common element to the two probes was Ali, a former hitman for the Black Mafia who recreated himself as a religious leader with strong political ties.

Formerly known as Clarence Fowler, he was convicted of murder in the 1970s, but that conviction was overturned on appeal. When he emerged from prison he had taken the name Shamsud-din Ali and quickly established himself as the leader of the Philadelphia Masjid, a dominant mosque in Southwest Philadelphia.

Underworld and law enforcement sources -- and testimony at the current trial -- allude to allegations that Ali used the mosque as a clearing house for payoffs from drug dealers. Several sources have also said that contributions to the mosque would guarantee the safety of anyone entering the city prison system where Muslims often controlled cell blocks and common areas.

Ali consistently denied those allegations even as he insinuated himself into the inner circle of city politics. He was close to both Mayor Street and then Gov. Edward Rendell while running the mosque. He was also appointed to the city board of prisons, an ironic development for a suspected Black Mafia hitman.

Ali's ability to recreate himself and to gain credibility in political and government circles despite his criminal past was seen by many as a reflection of the tolerant nature of politics in the city's African-American community.

Rev. Todd Wagner
Imagine, for example, a mob figure like Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino coming out of prison, changing his name to Todd Wagner and taking on the mantle of a born-again Christian minister. How far would the "Rev. Wagner" get in politics and government?

Yet Ali managed to do just that, setting up a mosque, a school and business enterprises that bid for and were awarded city contracts. Those companies received payments but did very little work, authoirities alleged.

While the jury hasn't heard all of those details, it has gotten repeated references to Ali in a case built around allegations that Savage used fear and intimidation to control his multi-million dollar cocaine distribution network. The case against Savage and three co-defendants includes 12 murders, seven of which have been tied to witness intimidation.

Stories and testimony about Ali take the case in an entirely different direction, which may be why the defense has tried to bring his name up whenever it has the chance.

How much of that  back story resonates with the jury is impossible to determine. What impact it might have on a case that is focused primarily on cocaine trafficking, witness intimidation and murder is another question that can't be answered.

Corey Kemp
The defense has tried to portray Savage as a lesser player in a world populated by movers and shakers like Shamsud-din Ali, Bubby Thomas and even Sam Christian, a once dominant Black Mafia drug dealer in South Philadelphia.

Christian's name has been mentioned a few times in testimony.

The corruption investigation that grew out of the drug probe resulted in the conviction of City Teasurer Corey Kemp, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and the indictment of lawyer Ron White, a key political operative for Mayor Street. White died of cancer before he could be tried.

But it is Ali, who was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to 87 months in prison on political corruption charges, who has dominated the discussions about politics and its links to the drug underworld in the ongoing trial.

One drug dealer, complaining about tribute payments he had to make to Ali, said it best in a phone call picked up on an FBI wiretap during the drug investigation.

"He's walking with kings while we're out here hustling," was the drug dealer's lament.

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