Fumo corruption case rises and haunts us again

    I haven’t thought about Vince Fumo and his extraordinary corruption trial in a while.

    The case rose like zombie this morning when a federal appeals court ordered his trial judge to hold a new hearing and reconsider Fumo’s sentence.The ruling came in response to motions from prosecutors, who felt Fumo’s 55-month prison term was too lenient.

    If you’re new to town or an amnesiac, Fumo was a political force of nature in Philadelphia for years, accumulating and wielding power for good and ill, sometimes both at once.

    His five-month trial in federal court was so absorbing I carried probably 60 hours of testimony and arguments around in my IPod for months, listening when I had a stretch in the car or the gym.

    I knew Fumo probably about as well as any Philadelphia reporter and came to appreciate him as a political player, a government technician and a wonderful source when I could get him on the phone. Like a lot of smart people, he had trouble keeping his knowledge and opinions to himself.

    In the course of the case I also came to appreciate the talent and dedication of the people who put him away – FBI agents Vicki Humphreys and Kathleen McAfee, and prosecutors Robert Zauzmer and John Pease. If you want to get a sense of them, listen to this July 2009 show on WHYY’s Radio Times.

    I re-read the column I wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News the day after Fumo was sentenced, and I can’t express my sense of him and his case any better. Here’s the top of that piece:

    I picture federal Judge Ronald Buckwalter tucking himself into bed last night, unbuttoning his robes to reveal a Vince Fumo T-shirt, with the letters “WGSD” emblazoned across the chest.

    The letters stand for “we get s— done,” the staff motto that embodied the workaholic, results-oriented, cut-through-red-tape mentality Fumo was so proud of.

    Because in sentencing Fumo yesterday to just 55 months in jail for his conviction on 137 felony corruption counts, Buckwalter was telling us that he values Fumo’s extraordinary talents for the art of government more than he’s troubled by Fumo’s extraordinary theft of taxpayer money.

    It’s a tougher call than you think.

    As I watched Fumo’s trial unfold and considered his 30-year political career, it often occurred to me that I’d rather have him representing me in the state Senate than 98 percent of the politicians I’ve known.

    He hired smart people, understood budgets, thought creatively about problems, and pushed bureaucracies in ways that got results. If he was putting all that energy behind good policy most of the time, you could kind of tolerate the fact that he could be a little irrational, petty and venal sometimes.

    And you might almost forgive his dipping in for a little extra for himself now and then, as long as nobody knew about it.

    The problem is, once we know he’s helping himself to public goods, we have to draw a hard line. If we forgive an effective politician raiding the cookie jar, we’re saying it’s OK for everybody.

    And the scale of Fumo’s grubbing for freebies as revealed in the federal indictment is truly breathtaking – he got everything from maid service to a bulldozer for free.

    I was talking with another reporter today. we agreed there’s a better-than-even chance that if Fumo were around, the state would have enacted a severance tax on gas drilling in the Marcellus shale. Things just aren’t the same without Vince.

    Word is that Fumo, who was a broken, trembling man at his sentencing, has done well in prison. But I’m sure he won’t welcome the news that his tormentors in the federal government haven’t let up, so many years after they got on his trail.

    I wonder if he’ll show up at his sentencing hearing and plead his case. The same judge will preside, and Fumo did much better with him than the jury. They listened to him explain how the charges were mostly a big misunderstanding, and they convicted him on every single count.

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