Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Government Winds Down Pathetic Farnese Corruption Case

Is That All There Is?
By Ralph Cipriano

Stephen Huntington is a retired lawyer who, back in 2011, aspired to be the Democratic leader of the city's 8th Ward.

Today, Huntington told a federal jury about the phone call he got from a distraught Democratic committee woman, explaining why she couldn't vote for Huntington as ward leader.

"Ellen was crying," Huntington told the jury. She was "very emotional."

The committee woman, Ellen Chapman, supposedly told Huntington that she was going to vote for  state Senator Larry Farnese as ward leader. Why? Because Farnese was lining up a $6,000 donation so that Chapman's daughter could study abroad.

"I felt sorry for her," Huntington explained about Chapman. "I regarded her as a mother who was concerned about her daughter's education. Who can argue with that?"

The answer to Huntington's question: an army of government prosecutors and FBI agents. They saw in a committee woman's tears and a $6,000 educational loan from a state senator a federal conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud through a bribery scheme. The end result was a 13-count federal indictment and a jury trial where the feds are invading 8th Ward politics. And Chapman and Farnese are both facing jail time.

"I see dead people"
The government indicated today that it was close to being done in presenting its case, after two days of often tedious testimony. Judge Cynthia Rufe announced that she was going to give the jury the day off tomorrow, rather than let them brave the traffic nightmare in Center City expected from President Trump's visit.

The judge, however, told the lawyers in the case that she wasn't taking the day off. And that the defense had until 11 a.m. tomorrow to submit their motions, which may include a motion to dismiss this clunker.

The judge said she wanted to give the government plenty of time to be able to respond to the defense motions. So maybe, just maybe, the judge will perform an act of mercy and pull the plug on USA v. Farnese rather than waste any more of the taxpayers money.

Somebody ought to turn the tables on the feds and do an investigation of the U.S. Attorney's Office. They're like the movie director who comes up with a box office hit, and then has license to bring a series of stinkers to the silver screen.

Kind of like M. Night Shyamalan, who had a 1999 box office hit with The Sixth Sense. And then he proceeded to give us The Village, The Happening, The Last Airbender, Lady in the Water and After Earth, which was so bad that Will Smith called it "the most painful failure in my career."

For the local U.S. Attorney's office, their box office smash was USA v. Fumo in 2008-9, which got rave reviews from the press corps. Especially The Philadelphia Inquirer, because it confirmed their view of the former state Senator as a combination of Hitler, Satan, and the Antichrist.

That's why in the Fumo case, the Inquirer put its stamp of legitimacy on the prosecution's "zeal to criminalize," in the immortal words of defense attorney Eddie Jacobs, "every blessed thing that Senator Fumo touches."

In the Fumo case, the feds were allowed to criminalize every facet of the activity formerly known as politics as usual. That meant that formerly harmless activities such as sending an email became a federal crime. So did sending a fax, fixing up an office building, tearing down a nuisance bar and a garage, buying a car for the officers of a nonprofit to drive, as well as putting gas in that car.

But sadly for the feds, that box office smash in the Fumo case was followed by a recent string of stinkers. Such as the rogue cops case of May 2015, when a disgusted jury acquitted six former city narcotics officers on all 47 charges in a 26-count RICO indictment.

In that case, the feds relied on 19 drug dealers and a crooked cop as star witnesses, but the jury found all of them simply not credible.

That stinker was followed by the Chaka Fattah case of last June. That's where the feds relied on a couple of turncoat cooperating witnesses to tie the former congressman -- who went to jail today -- to another RICO plot that involved the alleged laundering of a $1 million campaign loan.

The Fattah case was on its way to becoming another box office bomb. One of the original jurors realized that despite the words of the two suspect government witnesses, who were doing their best to keep themselves out of jail, there was not one shred of written evidence that tied the former congressman to the loan, or any conspiracy involving the loan.

But the resourceful trial judge in that case solved the problem of a potential mistrial by conducting a heavy-handed investigation of potential juror misconduct after just four hours of deliberations. And then that judge decided to toss the lone holdout juror off the case. Despite ample and credible evidence that the lone holdout was the only juror in the room who understood the facts of the case. And the simple principle that an overblown government indictment alleging all sorts of crimes does not constitute evidence.

An appeals court will decide whether the judge did the right thing by tossing the juror, while the former congressman begins serving a ten-year prison term.

The Fattah case was followed by the Dominic Verdi case of last December. In that stinker, the former deputy commissioner for the city's Department of Licenses & Inspections was acquitted by a jury of every charge in a seven-count indictment that alleged violations of the Hobbs Act by conspiring to commit extortion and honest services fraud.

The Verdi case got bad reviews. The trial judge repeatedly ripped the prosecutor for her lack of time management skills. The judge also pointed out to the jury several cooperating government witnesses who were allegedly part of the big sinister conspiracy with Verdi, but failed to show up in court. Meanwhile, the jury decided that the cooperating witnesses who did testify, including a convicted murderer and a couple of fraudsters who ran a seedy nightclub, had zero credibility.

All of which brings us to the current stinker from the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Larry Farnese case. For starters, the casting is all wrong. Unlike his predecessor, Farnese doesn't look like the mastermind of a criminal plot; only a boy scout who got caught rigging the student council election.

Here's what shouldn't get lost in the shuffle. The feds years ago began their crusade against politics as usual by taking out a powerhouse state senator accused of stealing millions of dollars from the state senate and a couple of nonprofits. But now the feds are down to attacking his successor on the grounds that he used a $6,000 scholarship to rig an election for ward leader.

An uncontested election settled by acclamation, in a unanimous voice vote. Quite the downward slope. Maybe it's time to call off the crusade? Before we start making federal cases out of office betting pools?

Before Huntington came to the witness stand today, the government in the Farnese case called its star cooperating witness. Theodore Mucellin is a former political consultant who claimed that he was still a friend of Farnese's.

Mucellin explained how Farnese told him he was going to try to find someone else to underwrite the $6,000 donation to pay for study abroad for Chapman's daughter. But if he couldn't find another sponsor, Mucellin told the jury, "We were gonna cut the check."

Mucellin explained to the jury how Chapman supposedly told him, "I have a deal with the senator, and I'm gonna honor it."

On cross-examination, Mucellin said it wasn't unusual for Farnese to come up with money to pay for educational expenses for students in his district. Farnese came from a family of teachers, Mucellin said. And when it came to education, "He cared a great deal about it."

In today's sleep-inducing court proceedings, there was plenty of inside baseball for the jury to ponder. Such as Mucellin telling the jury that his wife worked in the U.S. Attorney's office. And that it was one of his wife's friends in that same U.S. Attorney's office who found him a defense lawyer after the FBI came knocking on his door.

When the feds showed up to question him, Mucellin told the jury, it was just two days before doctors induced his wife into labor; the couple was expecting their first child.

Then, Mucellin received a target letter from the feds, threatening him with jail time. That's when Mucelin became a cooperating witness willing to testify against his old pal, Larry Farnese, in exchange for a government grant of immunity.

A nice and cozy circle, isn't it?

If the judge doesn't grant a motion to dismiss, this sorry spectacle of a federal corruption trial is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Friday.


  1. Ralph,

    You share a sentiment that many others have about this case. However, let me make two points.

    First, while the outcome of the daughter going to school may appear laudable, it was still accomplished on a donor's dime without their permission. Donors give to candidates for relatively specific purposes. Donors are aware that prosecutions over conversion of campaign funds are common enough to encourage proper reporting and proper use of funds, and donors have an expectation, for example, that a donation is not being used for personal enrichment.

    Particularly if I was a donor of limited means, I'd be pretty upset to hear that the Senator was using my donations to send someone's kid to school. Politicians should not be using their campaigns as a way to crowd-source educations for the inside crowd.

    Donors of limited means are still entitled to use their hard-earned funds for political speech purposes. It would be a great disservice if small-time donors were left out of the political process, simply because they feared they were forwarding someone else's child's education at the expense of their own. That conversion, even for a relatively benign outcome, necessarily must be a crime.

    Second, I would commend the prosecution for making this such a quick case. That's an improvement over the kitchen-sink cases that run for six weeks. Win or lose, at least they got straight to the point.

    1. 6K versus the gigantic amt of your tax dollars spent to investigate and prosecute this dumpster fire. Commend?. No. Its an ethical violation dressed up.Should have been handled as such.

    2. The fed doesn't work on a cost-per-case calculation. They've said that repeatedly, particularly the IRS. They seek high-profile individuals and make examples out of them so they don't need to do it very often.

      That is their enforcement strategy. If they lock Farnese up for $6000, they've sent the message they want.

      Though I suspect in Farnese's case it is something of a pilot. It took five years to bring the case. It was either an audit, or one of the witnesses is more upset than they let on, or it's a throwaway test case to see where the line between official act and routine access falls.

  2. Even in a short case, the government excels at boring people to death.

    Can't this guy get fined for improper use of campaign funds or something, and then have to pay it back? Do we need a grand jury investigation, a federal indictment, and a ridiculous trial alleging some grand conspiracy? All over a $6,000 donation? A complete waste of time.

  3. That's a good point. It does seem that there's no middle ground between a mistake and a life-ending conviction.

    It's tough though - you have to send the message that campaign donations are not slush funds.

    I think some of this is a byproduct of years past and tough on crime attitudes. There probably is a civil remedy here - let's say a tenfold penalty on illegal use of campaign funds. That would certainly discourage personal enrichment, but would not render folks unable to earn a living.

    On the other hand, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are in no apparent hurry to reform the penal code and make the punishment fit the crime - factoring in the effects of a criminal record and loss of license, etc.

    Farnese being one of those lawmakers sitting idle as so many folks lose their economic standing in society over marijuana sales and other minor transgressions, it's hard to feel much sympathy. If you were going to punish anyone for crappy laws, start with the lawmakers. If they fall victim to the traps that their own peers set, so be it.

  4. I am in favor of an investigation into the US Attorneys office, its usually the same characters going after politicians. I agree that there is no middle ground when it comes to discipline, there seems to be only one way to handle such issues, its disgrace and throw away the key,with the Inky fanning the flames of hatred toward anyone who is indicted by the prosecution.
    Jurors don't want to send good people to jail because a prosecutor is telling them a defendant deserves to go to jail and that they have violated the integrity of their office. What about the prosecution that resorted to lying to get an indictment or lying at trial to get a conviction. Which sin is greater, who violated their office.
    Take care of ethical issues, don't turn them into criminal issues.

    Traffic Court was one such case, judges that heard between 100,000 and 125,0000 citation each year were indicted on less than four tickets each. Watching the prosecution lie at trial as well as realizing they lied to get the indictment in the first place was sickening. More sickening was the Inky not reporting what actually happened in the courtroom after they had already condemned the defendants, no sense reporting the truth.

    If the Supreme Court had an issue with Traffic Court they should have taken care of it themselves, instead they let their friends in the federal building do the dirty work for them. The selection of judges that were indicted spoke volumes as well the the one judge that escaped an indictment.Nothing much left to the imagination there. Traffic Court was a set up between the Supreme Court and federal prosecutors.

    No one is suggesting that there be no disciplinary action be taken on such issues,just stop dragging people into federal court for unnecessary trials and sentencing good people to decades in prison for ethical issues.

    All trials that could have been handled by disciplinary boards that are handled in federal court should be personally financed by each individual prosecutor not the federal government and the taxpayers. Additional prosecutors should be held in contempt for bringing such a case into federal court when such a matter could have been held at the state or city level.

    Bullying seems to be in fashion at the moment in our country and I suggest that the Inky has taken part in the bullying of defendants for years at the instructions of the prosecution. Either stay out of the courtroom or get the facts correct.

    I suggest The Inky investigates the new information just posted to the Innocence Projects website, the facts are startling how many people plead guilty to avoid death or decades in prison, all were found to be innocent but were forced to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit by the prosecution to get a conviction. It was almost unwatchable. Now that is what I consider newsworthy.

  5. I find it interesting that Mucellin would get a target letter being married to someone who worked in the US Atorneys office, its how they operate, trying to put as much stress on an individual as possible. Maybe he will now have another point of view , one shared by other witnesses and defendants, but threatening witnesses with jail time is usually the only way the prosecution gets the information they desire for a conviction.

  6. It is interesting that he got the letter and the visit, all while his wife was pregnant. That sure doesn't sound like he got special treatment unless somebody didn't like his wife.

    I don't know if this has been answered, but how did the Feds come to find this case in the first place, if nobody seems particularly upset about it?

    It almost appears they are doing campaign finance audits. Which, if I were a politician, I'd take VERY seriously. You don't want to be on the losing end of the FBI/IRS's finely tuned algorithms for spitting fraud. I wonder if the simple fact that the donation was an outlier put them on the trail. If so, this could be the warm-up round.

  7. Great article in the Marshall Project today on a new breed of incoming District Attorneys who campaigned on less punitive sentences, marijuana decriminalization, opposition to the death penalty and charging fewer juveniles as adults. Since criminal justice happens in the states and counties, these policy shifts could have a great impact.
    Kim Foxx replaced controversial incumbent Anita Alverez. Fox ordered prosecutors to stop charging low level shoplifting as a felony.
    Incomer Kim Ogg fired nearly 40 prosecutors and replaced them with experienced defense attorneys , a rare change of persepective for a prosecutors office, in key positions, including chief of staff and trial chief, and created an office of professional integrity to hold prosecutors to ethical guidelines, such has when to hand over evidence to the defense and how.
    Newly elected DA Margaret Moore is restaffing effort of her own, she informed 27 if the offices existing prosecutors that their services were no longer needed and replaced them with lawyers known for having a good reputation in the defense community, it was the most sweeping personnel shift in the DA's office in decades.
    New DA Beth McCann said her office will no longer seek the death penalty, she stated " I don't think the state should be in the business of killing people"
    Melissa Nelson replaced incumbent state attorney Angela Corey who was nationally known for her zealous pursuit of the death penalty. She created a panel of lawyers to evaluate all the death penalty cases in part to make sure that no mitigating evidence gets neglected. She also crated a team of prosecutors whose job whose job it is to identity wrongful convictions and reverses them.


  9. You may think that when State Senator Farnese gave $6,000 to a commitee woman for her support and vote it is just South Philly politics as usual. No this is a crime he used other peoples money to get a stronger hold on the area by becoming the ward leader. You may try to belittle the prosecutor but it was Senator Farnese who crossed the line and by doing so became a criminal. Lets get rid of all the politicans who think it is ok as Fumo stated to spend OPM (Other Peoples Money) illegally.

    1. Agreed.

      One interesting thought - if a campaign donor wanted to send the kid to school, they could have donated directly, and no crime would occur.

      Now, if Farnese had ASKED a donor if they would help send the kid to school, that would likely be a Hobbs Act violation - extortion under color of official right. Interestingly, one witness suggested that Farnese may have or would have attempted to find a donor, but didn't.

      A politician asking, "Can you donate to such and such instead of my campaign" is likely Hobbs Act extortion because of the pressure the politician's request creates.

      Yet simply moving the money without even asking cannot possibly be any less criminal. It would be very weird if the law allowed what Farnese did without permission but would have criminalized it if he had asked for permission.

      It seems that Farnese committed a crime in the process of skirting another one.


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