Monday, January 23, 2017

Farnese Trial: Penny Ante Politics Or Political Corruption?

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


  1. Inventing crimes are what federal prosecutors do. What we need is a media that asks questions, such as do we want people to spend the rest of their lives in prison for this type of offense. Is there a better way to handle a case such as this than to threaten a defendant with jail time.

    What type of country have we become that we are unable to think for ourselves but allow the government to make all the decisions for us on crime or supposed crime. Our government teaches us how to hate and not to forgive, we think putting defendants in jail will eliminate all problems.

    We need another way to deal withe these types of situations, other than forcing defendant to plead guilty to crime they did not commit fearful of taking a chance with a jury that has been contaminated by the media. I don't want politicians to go to jail. I want prosecutors that invent crimes to go to jail for misleading the public.

    New statistics in from the Innocence Project:

    95% of felony convictions in the US are obtained through guilty pleas.
    Its impossible to take a chance on a jury trial with jurors that are salivating for politicians heads to roll.Years and years of condemning all politician is paying off for prosecutors, big time, no one involved in the running of our country has a chance of being found innocent by a jury.
    We need to show the public what prosecutors do for a living, to find fault not the truth.

  2. Its curious to me that prosecutors always accuse politicians of schemes to benefit themselves,the same can be said about prosecutors. Having a high profile corruption case does wonders for a prosecutors career. Lets start pointing fingers at prosecutors that bring needless federal cases where none are warranted.

    If the media would stop its constant abuse of politicians and let prosecutors fight without the aid of the media, we may see much different outcomes for politicians at trial, or less unnecessary cases in general.
    The media would never admit to any wrong doing, just as the justice department is not in the habit of admitting its errors. This website is the only place to get the unbiased facts. The Inky seems to be in the same league as the supermarket tabloids when it comes to condemning a defendant.
    Think media, do the leg work, question the defendants, don't print the prosecutions side of a case just for the sake of selling papers. These are peoples lives we are talking about, families, careers, life savings at stake, is the media so callous that they don't care about facts, is being published more important than the truth to reporters. Don't print anything given to you by self serving prosecutors. Start doing some investigative reporting on defendants and their cases, even for your own knowledge. Stop treating defendants like vermin. No wonder the press is hated by defendants, no defendant ever received a fair shake from the Inky.

    The country is now feeling the effects of relentless bashing of politicians, we now have a very divided nation, one the media will never admit to being party to creating that divide. You cant have it both ways, we need and crave good politicians, how do we attract them if they and their families are held up to ridicule at every turn. Who would give up their lives to serve to be disgraced by the media and the public. Fueling the fire of hatred has turned citizen against citizen. The media needs to realizes that our own justice department has been at the center of the storm.



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