Friday, May 4, 2018

On Tour With The Original Gangster

Courtroom sketch by Susan Schary
From Target: The Senator, Chapter One

By Ralph Cipriano

In the back of a prison bus, a U.S. marshal was sitting in a steel cage, armed with a shotgun. He was watching over forty men dressed in blue paper jumpsuits and shackled in handcuffs, belly chains, and leg irons.

Most of the inmates were tattooed young drug dealers with buzz cuts and shaved heads. The oldest guy on the bus, however, looked like somebody’s hippie uncle with his scruffy mop of silver hair and the full white beard he had sprouted in prison. Fellow prisoners called him “Pops,” “Daddy-O,” and “OG,” as in the “Original Gangster.”

As the bus rumbled over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia, many young drug dealers were catnapping in their seats. The OG, however, was peering through security bars and tinted windows at a skyline that reflected the glory of a past life.

They used to call him “The Senator.” In the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania, mayors and governors came and went. But from his stronghold in the Pennsylvania Senate, where he held the purse strings to the state budget, Vincent J. Fumo reigned for nearly a generation as a power broker.

As the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, whether the Democrats were in power or not, anyone who needed money from the state budget had to go through the senator, including Republicans in the majority. Life for the man the press dubbed the “Machiavelli of Harrisburg” became a seemingly endless series of deals to cut, favors to trade, and power to accumulate.

With the blessing of the senator, you could get elected mayor, legislator, or judge. With the blessing of the senator, you could build a convention center, stadium, or concert hall.

This was especially true in Fumo’s hometown of Philadelphia, where the senator lined up funding for major public works projects. The fruits of his labors were visible everywhere you looked.

In Center City, the senator brought home $1 billion to build and expand the Pennsylvania Convention Center, spanning three city blocks, and $100 million to fund the concert halls and theaters lining South Broad Street, on the city’s Avenue of the Arts.

On the east side of own, the senator earmarked $50 million for a sprawling new National Constitution Center built on Independence Mall, near the Liberty Bell.

On the west side, the senator set aside $100 million to move the Barnes Foundation, the largest collection of Impressionist art in America, from the Philadelphia suburbs to the scenic Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Despite critics who claimed that Fumo “stole” the art collection over the body of Dr. Albert C. Barnes.)

In South Philadelphia, Fumo brought home $180 million to finance two new stadiums for the Eagles and Phillies.

While Fumo was in power, hundreds of billions of dollars in state and federal appropriations flowed through his hands without the feds ever accusing him of selling his office or taking a bribe or kickback. He wound up in prison, however, after a jury convicted him on 137 felony counts that he would gladly tell you amounted to “pure bullshit.”

The crimes of which Fumo was found guilty included sending his driver out on state time to pick up his freshly pressed oxford shirts, accepting as gifts tens of thousands of dollars worth of free power tools, and using credit cards from a nonprofit to go on shopping sprees at Sam’s Club.

As a result of his petty crime spree, Fumo was no longer the senator, he was inmate 62033-066. And on the afternoon of November 2, 2011, after two years in exile, he was coming home in chains to a city where he was once feared but now reviled.

                        *                          *                        *

At lunchtime on the road, prisoners on the bus usually were handed a paper bag filled with a few slices of bread, a slice of bologna, and a slice of yellow processed cheese.

Nothing went to waste. On a day that started out at a chilly thirty-seven degrees, Fumo used the paper bag for insulation, stuffing it inside his paper jumpsuit to keep warm.

When he was the senator, Fumo used to stroll into La Veranda, his favorite restaurant overlooking the Delaware River, and order his favorite dishes: linguine with tuna, broccoli rabe, and a rare veal chop. But as the Original Gangster on the bus, Fumo had to learn how to eat a bologna sandwich while wearing handcuffs.

He began the process by taking a deep breath, to free up an extra few inches on the belly chain attached to his handcuffs. Next, he used his left hand to raise the chain to his chest while he simultaneously extended his right hand holding the sandwich to his mouth. Finally, he bent his head down to take a bite.

He had the routine down pat, but today, no sandwich. The inmates were going hungry aboard “Con Air,” the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ notoriously slow and inefficient transportation system.

Fumo’s odyssey on Con Air began at 5:00 a.m. on October 20, 2011, when he climbed aboard the bus outside the federal prison camp in Ashland, Kentucky. When Fumo saw some of the scary characters he was traveling with, he was glad everybody was in chains.

From Kentucky, Fumo rode for the bus for thirteen bumpy hours to the federal prison in Atlanta, where he stayed in lockdown for a week. From Monday to Friday, he was confined to his cell for twenty-three hours. He had one hour to eat, shower, and make phone calls. And on the weekend, he was confined to his cell for forty-eight straight hours.

In Atlanta, Fumo was taken into custody by U.S. marshals. He boarded a plane in shackles for a three-hour flight to Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, New York. When he got off the plane, Fumo rode another bus for three hours to the federal prison in Brooklyn, where he stayed for a week in a crowded dormitory furnished with bunk beds.

The final leg of his trip was a two-hour bus ride from Brooklyn to Philadelphia.

It took the U.S. Bureau of Prisons two weeks to transport Fumo 500 miles from Kentucky to Philadelphia, an eight-hour trip by car, a one-hour flight by private plane.

 Con Air, also known as “diesel therapy,” was taxing on the young and healthy. But at 68, Fumo was neither. He had a stent in his heart and two titanium rods in his back. He was also going without his meds.

Fumo took fifteen daily prescriptions for heart disease, depression, anxiety, a longstanding chemical imbalance, high blood pressure, diabetes, and restless leg syndrome. When he didn’t take his meds, a facial tic flared and his legs twitched.

He was on the way home at the request of federal prosecutors who were outraged over the sentence the prisoner had received from U.S. District Court Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter.

Fifty-five months in prison, the prosecutors said, was way too lenient for somebody who had just been convicted by a jury on 137 felony counts. That’s why the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia took the unusual step of appealing Fumo’s sentence. A federal appeals court agreed with the prosecutors and overturned the sentence.

So, after serving two and a half years of his original sentence at the federal prison in Kentucky, Fumo was on his way back to Philadelphia to be resentenced by the same judge.

If the prosecutors got their way, and they were seeking a sentence of at least fifteen years, Fumo would probably die in prison. The prisoner, however, was praying for mercy.

                        *                          *                        *

At the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, the inmates climbed down off the bus in matching orange plastic slippers. Correctional officers, known as COs, passed out nonlethal writing instruments in the form of bendable ballpoint pen refills

At every facility, BOP regulations required the inmates to fill out the same three forms. The first form gave the BOP the authority to open a prisoner’s mail and monitor his phone calls. The second form asked if the prisoner was thinking about committing suicide or using drugs. The third form asked each inmate to specify who would get his property in the event of his untimely death.

As Fumo was filling out the federal forms for the third time on his journey, a female CO recognized him and whispered to a colleague, “The VIP.”

Fumo was elated. “I’m on Broadway,” he thought. His lawyer, or one of his old pals in office, must have put in the fix.

The two female COs, however, promptly escorted Fumo to a special holding cell, where he sat for a couple of hours. Next, Fumo was taken to the SHU, or Special Housing Units, a.k.a. “the hole,” where he would spend the next twenty-one days in solitary confinement.

The reason: because of widespread publicity over his case, Fumo was considered a high-profile inmate that the BOP didn’t want mixing with the general prison population.

The marshals wouldn’t let Fumo dine with his lawyers. So back in the hole, Fumo had to choke down more bad prison food that had already packed an extra sixteen pounds on his six-foot, 180-pound frame.

Meals were delivered on a plastic tray slid through a slot in the cell door. One night, Fumo took the tray over to his bunk bed and pried the lid off dinner. To his surprise, he saw at first glance what appeared to be a half-inch thick slice of perfectly cooked medium-rare roast beef; brown on the outside and pink in the middle.

It seemed in vivid contrast to the well-done shoe leather usually served. Then Fumo took a bite and discovered that the meat wasn’t beef, just a piece of ham so old it had turned brown around the edges.

                                *                          *                        *

A week after he arrived in Philadelphia, on the day he was going to court, a male CO escorted Fumo to a private room where he unlocked the prisoner’s handcuffs, belly chain, and leg irons. Then Fumo had to take off his jumpsuit and stand naked. He had to open his mouth on command and move his tongue from side-to-side, to show the CO he wasn’t hiding anything.

That wasn’t the only potential hiding place that had to be inspected. The CO told Fumo to lift his scrotum. Then, Fumo had to turn around and face the wall.

The prisoner raised one foot at a time, so the CO could see the bottoms of both feet. Finally, Fumo had to squat and cough.

The first time he was strip-searched, the CO on duty couldn’t have been kinder and more professional. But after more than two years in jail, the dehumanizing procedure had become numbingly routine.

The COs went about their duties with the clinical attitudes of doctors, but BOP regulations were relentless. Fumo kept count of the number of times he’d been strip-searched during his fourteen-day Con Air trip from Kentucky to Philadelphia. He stopped counting at twenty-five.

For a politician who hated bureaucracies all his life, Fumo was trapped in the belly of the beast. After Fumo got dressed, the CO wrapped the belly chain around the prisoner’s waist and locked his handcuffs. Then the CO escorted him on a five-minute walk through the underground catacombs that connected the prison with the courthouse.

When they got to the courtroom, it was jammed. A marshal told Fumo he hadn’t seen this many reporters at the last mob trial.

The notoriety of the Fumo case was due to the relentless crusading zeal of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The hometown newspaper had been investigating Fumo for the past eight years. During the height of its Fumo obsession, when the former senator went on trial, the Inquirer published 714 articles, editorials and letters about Fumo in 2008 and 2009, a staggering rate of 351 a year, or nearly one a day.*

[Footnote: That was more than two-and-one-half times the 271 articles, editorials and letters published during the same two-year period about Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor, who, after Fumo’s departure from office, was the most powerful politician in Pennsylvania.]

Or as Philadelphia magazine put it in 2008, “To say the Inquirer has covered Fumo … is akin to saying the Titanic took on some water.”

                                   *                          *                        *
For the resentencing of Fumo, the Inquirer had a photographer, a columnist, and two reporters on hand, one of whom was blogging live updates for, the newspaper’s free website.

A reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News, the Inquirer’s sister tabloid, was there as well, along with reporters from KYW, the city’s all-news radio station the Associated Press, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and several Philadelphia television stations.

The prisoner entered the courtroom looking rumpled and hunched over in his olive green jumpsuit, blue sneakers, and handcuffs. His hair was mussed up and his new beard startled many observers.

The first person Fumo recognized was his twenty-one-year-old raven-haired daughter, Allison, who looked thin and depressed. “I love you,” Fumo mouthed. Next, Fumo saw Carolyn Zinni, his bombshell of a fiancée fourteen years his junior, staring at him with a look of concern. Fumo sent her the same message.

As he trudged toward the defense table, the defendant, at the request of his lawyers, did not return the stares of the two federal prosecutors who had devoted years of their lives to putting him away.

But Fumo knew they were there. In prison emails monitored by the Bureau of Prisons, Fumo habitually referred to the two prosecutors as “PP&P,” for the cartoon characters they reminded him of: Porky Pig and the Penguin. The prosecutors, however, didn’t think it was funny.

The marshal removed Fumo’s handcuffs, and for the first time in two years the old inmate with the aching back sat down in a real chair. The sensation was overwhelming. There were no decent chairs in prison, just metal stools and hard plastic seats.

This is wonderful, Fumo thought.

So the defendant had a comfortable seat for the resentencing hearing that would stretch across two days. Much of the testimony, however, would leave Fumo in a deeper state of depression.

A doctor from the Bureau of Prisons testified about the litany of ailments Fumo suffered from. Meanwhile, the defendant hung his head, and a Daily News reporter noticed that “a facial tic seemed more pronounced.”

On the witness stand, an FBI agent read an embarrassing report from Fumo’s psychiatrist that amounted to a mental strip search:

“Vincent J. Fumo experiences an insatiable urge to acquire power (political), people, women and objects [houses, cars, machinery] to compensate for his low sense of self-esteem,” the FBI agent read. 

“This driven quality manifested throughout the treatment as an addictive force,” the agent read. “He [Fumo] would describe the urge to acquire as uncontrollable and regretted his decisions after the fact. … When his urge to acquire could not be satisfied, his low self-esteem generated unbearable anxiety usually relieved by alcohol, tranquilizers, and food.”
                                         *                          *                        *

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer stood to address the judge. Short, bald and professorial, Zauzmer was the prosecutor Fumo referred to as the Penguin. He explained why Fumo deserved a prison sentence much longer than fifty-five months.

The prosecutor held up Exhibit 24, the government’s sentencing memorandum, “in which we itemize twenty-seven areas of perjury” committed by the defendant, Zauzmer said.

The jury had convicted Fumo on 137 counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and conspiring to file a false tax return on behalf of a charity he had set up, but Fumo was never charged with perjury. That didn’t stop Zauzmer from accusing Fumo of twenty-seven new crimes in an attempt to justify a longer sentence.

“Our view was on any material issue before the jury,” Zauzmer told the judge, “Mr. Fumo told the false story that he thought benefited him and committed maybe the most egregious trial perjury any of us have witnessed.”

Next up was Assistant U.S. Attorney John J. Pease, the stocky, combative prosecutor whom Fumo referred to as Porky Pig. Pease returned the favor by making an issue of the prisoner’s appearance.

Fumo had “$5,000 suits” back in the closet of his city mansion, the prosecutor asserted, but he had deliberately come to court “looking like the Unabomber” in a blatant attempt to win the judge’s sympathy.*

[Footnote: According to Fumo, the most expensive handmade suit he owned cost him $1,500.]

In his litany of Fumo’s crimes against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pease included a personal grievance. He called me names, the prosecutor said. But Pease quickly returned to the moral high ground.

 “With this defendant, it’s a badge of honor to be called the names he called me,” Pease told the judge. “By someone who is so corrupt and dishonest as this defendant … .”

Over at the defense table, Fumo couldn’t suppress a smile. He had gotten under the prosecutor’s skin. In politics, that counted for something.

“You also should consider the fact whether or not this is a person who is remorseful, and who recognizes that he’s engaged in wrongdoing,” Pease lectured the judge. “In other words, has he learned his lesson? Has he learned anything from the experience of having sat in this courtroom for five months, listening to over a hundred witnesses testify… ?”

Pease didn’t think so. The proof, the prosecutor said, was in the prisoner’s own profane rants recorded on the prison email system.

“He’s somebody who says, ‘I got convicted of technical bullshit.’ That’s how he talks about the crime, in his words,” Pease told the judge. In his eMails, Pease noted, in a voice dripping with disgust, Fumo compared himself to Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, and the Jews killed during the Holocaust.

 “This is no martyr,” Pease thundered. “This man is no victim. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is a criminal who engaged in a systematic effort to defraud the Senate and two nonprofit organizations, lied about it repeatedly during his trial, is continuing to engage in fraudulent conduct, [and is] planning revenge on those he thinks did him wrong."

Dennis Cogan, Fumo’s slender, veteran defense attorney, told the judge that the proof of the government’s continuing vendetta against his client was that the prosecutors would stoop so low as to publish Fumo’s prison emails in their latest court filing, emails that were republished on the front page of the Inquirer.

The government was eavesdropping on “pillow talk” between Fumo and his fiancée, Cogan lamented, as well as “heart-wrenching” letters that Fumo wrote to his daughter.

“They had to read his emails because, not that they thought that Carolyn Zinni and he were planning a jailbreak, but to let him know that they also want to know what’s in his mind,” Cogan told the judge.

“Big Brother’s going to be watching wherever you are,” Cogan argued. “It’s nothing about prison security or anything like that. …”

“Well at least in this case, Big Brother gave a sufficient warning,” the judge deadpanned. The judge knew that every time an inmate sat down in front of a federal computer, a notice appeared on the screen warning that all prison emails were continuously monitored by the BOP.

But that didn’t stop Fumo, who’d been in psychotherapy for forty years and who rarely had an unexpressed thought. Behind bars, the prisoner vented his rage and hit the send button.

In court, however, the prosecutors were using Fumo’s angry words against him, to show he was unrepentant.

Cogan argued that the government’s vendetta against his client was all out of proportion to the actual crimes committed.

“In this case that does not involve bribery or extortion or the selling of one’s office,” Cogan said, “the government continues to press for a sentence that they know substantially raises the odds that Vince Fumo leaves prison only in a coffin.”

                                    *                          *                        *

Vince Fumo had written out what he wanted to say to the judge in longhand with a ballpoint pen refill on a yellow legal pad. One of Fumo’s lawyers had gone through the speech, using a red fine tip marker to cross out remarks deemed too argumentative.

The prisoner stood unbound in front of the judge; Cogan was at his side. And then Fumo read through his entire speech, including the redlined comments. Like any seasoned politician on the stump, he also did some ad-libbing.

“I want to apologize for my disheveled appearance,” Fumo began, “but it has been a long trip, and I am very limited in what I can do with my appearance — my beard, my hair.”

“As to the jumpsuit, Your Honor,” Fumo said, “I asked that my family bring clothes so I didn’t have to wear this to court.” But, Fumo said, it was the policy of the U.S. Marshals that a prisoner didn’t get a change of clothes unless he was standing in front of a jury.

“I didn’t intend to come here this way,” the prisoner ad-libbed.

Fumo was talking to the judge as if he were an old friend, or a fellow politician whose vote he badly needed.

“Your Honor, I gave my life to the Senate and to government,” Fumo said, because he wanted to help people. “There’s no greater euphoria, Your Honor, for a human being than to be able to help another human being. There’s not a bigger high.”

From the highs of public office, Fumo descended to the humiliation of having to confess that he was a prescription drug addict in an unsuccessful bid to get into the prison drug program, which would have shaved a year off his sentence.

He seemed overqualified. A photo previously introduced in court as evidence showed the senator’s overflowing medicine cabinet, which Cogan described as “something you’d see at Michael Jackson’s house.”

“I have laid before the world openly my problems,” Fumo said about his abuse of prescription drugs while the government was closing in on him. Between January 2006 and February 2007, doctors had prescribed for the senator more than 1,000 doses of Ambien, Xanax and Darvocet.

“I did it knowingly,” Fumo confessed. “I did it because it was an escape, especially during times in this investigation, and during these proceedings.”

“I’ve been clean ever since I entered prison,” Fumo said, “but I have to admit that many times I still long for some Xanax,” he said. “This might be one of those times.

 “I’m tired, depressed. All I want is peace.”

Next, Fumo brought up his angry prison emails that were such a hit with the prosecutors and the press. In X-rated language, Fumo had railed about “my so-called crime,” raged against the Inquirer, and ripped the jurors who convicted him as “dumb, corrupt, and prejudiced.”

The remark about the jury had clearly pissed off the judge. Standing in front of Buckwalter, Fumo tried in vain to repair the damage.

 “Your Honor, I never, ever would have dreamed that they would have been published,” Fumo said about his prison emails. “Never.”

“Yes, I’m angry, yes, I’m depressed,” Fumo admitted. “And now, to all those people that I may have said bad things about in my most angry of moments, I apologize.”

Finally, to the chagrin of his lawyers, Fumo went off-script one more time to address the vitriol of the prosecutors.

“I may be viewed as an evil person, [but] “I don’t agree with that assessment, Your Honor,” Fumo said. “I did a lot of good for a lot of people. …

“I’m a human being. I have frailties, I have problems. And I have a psychological problem of OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. I’ve got all this stuff. I’m a complicated person.”

Then, the defendant made a confession.

 “And yes, at the peak of my power, I was one tough son of a bitch.”

But in the Pennsylvania Senate, the prisoner told the judge, “There’s nobody walking around in togas and sandals talking philosophy.

“It’s a battle.”


  1. Sen fumo did nothing but good for people all through his career some people he helped jumped off bus instead of being loyal to him

    1. He totally milked the Independence Seaport Museum as his own private charity. Character is what you do when people aren't watching. Fumo showed his.

    2. Garth, you must be a loyal Inquirer reader. It's just not that simple. Read my book and you'll see what the FBI "302" reports have to say about what was going on at the Seaport Museum.

      Fumo was the museum's biggest fundraiser, bringing in $700,000 a year. And a succession of people in charge of that museum were only to happy to keep him sailing for free on their yachts. Another cozy political trade-off that got criminalized by the prosecutors.

      But in the case of the Seaport Museum, there was quite a bit of transparency about what Fumo was up to, and the higher-ups kept approving it in writing. Frankly, that part of the case should probably have been thrown out as nonsense.


  2. His fiancee who was loyal to him thru ought his trial & jail time was thrown to the curb once he was released. He is extremely lucky he is out of jail imo.

  3. Fumo stoled a lot of money!!

    1. Is this Craig McCoy?


  4. If Vince wants to restore his legacy of public service, he should commit to a series of interviews and finance a podcast to explain his view of prosecutorial misconduct and the criminality of the FBI.

    Circumvent longstanding government misconduct enabled by criminal media bias and present a picture that has long been manipulated with lasting and enduring terrible consequences.

  5. Vince prides himself as a financial guru. Now he can present a new slant to the greatest hoax-political honesty through a different lens.

    What is his view of the Bob Brady forthcoming indictment and trial?

    Now is the time for you Ralph and Vince to create a media platform that the two of you could present the most refreshing and public redeeming journalism and attempt to present truth and accuracy in media.

  6. If u want to talk bad about someone why not use. Name instead of anonymous

  7. To quote Judge Buckwalter at Vince's original sentencing, after hearing all the testimony at trial, he accepted one of the defense lawyer's description of Vincent Fumo, not as a thief but as someone who, because of all the good he had done, had "an exaggerated sense of entitlement." Simply put, Vincent thought that because of all the good he had accomplished for the City over all the years, that he was entitled to
    some special considerations. No doubt that many of them were violations of the law, but did anyone in their right mind think that they deserved a sentence in the 21- 28 years range the prosecution asked for? Fortunately for Vincent, the Judge was himself a former politician who had run d=for political office as District Attorney in Lancaster County and had not only the knowledge but the experience of how things work in that world, but had the courage and character to impose a sentence that was a reasonable punishment rather than bowing to the prosecutorial and media pressure to give Vincent what would have been a life sentence for those offenses which were essentially misdemeanors at best. steve


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