‘I did not hold this against her’: key prosecution witness in Pa. Sen. Farnese trial

Pennsylvania state Sen. Larry Farnese is shown at left at the capitol in Harrisburg in February 2016. (AP Photo/Marc Levy

Pennsylvania state Sen. Larry Farnese is shown at left at the capitol in Harrisburg in February 2016. (AP Photo/Marc Levy

As federal prosecutors describe it, Democratic city committeeman Stephen Huntington’s bid to become a ward leader was spoiled after Pennsylvania state Sen. Larry Farnese, who also was running for the seat, bribed a fellow committee member to not vote for Huntington.

Farnese is charged with orchestrating a $6,000 gift to the daughter of committeewoman Ellen Chapman, who then nixed her support for Huntington in the 2011 contest in Philadelphia’s Eighth Ward, something prosecutors say amounted to bribery. 

But testifying to jurors on Wednesday in the federal mail and wire fraud trial of Farnese and  Chapman, Huntington was far short of aggrieved.

“I thought she was a logical supporter for my candidacy,” said Huntington, 73, a retired attorney, describing a phone conversation in which a tearful Chapman said she would no longer be voting for him.

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“But I did not hold this against her,” Huntington said. “I regarded her as a mom who was interested in her daughter’s education. Who can argue with that?”

Huntington later dropped out of the race, and Farnese won the ward leader spot unanimously. Asked if Chapman reversing her support influenced his decision to withdraw from the ward leader race, Huntington replied: “Sure.” 

As the criminal trial entered its second day, the government also called other committee people, as well as Farnese’s former accountant and a former political director to the stand in an attempt to persuade the jury that the $6,000 donation from the state senator’s political action committee was intended to influence the outcome of the local Democratic Party race.

Farnese’s former political director told jurors what he recalled about a conversation they had about the political contribution in question.

“Don’t get upset, don’t get excited,” political consultant Ted Mucellin remembers Farnese saying, since it was an unusually large donation for the campaign. “I had previously promised her that we would support the scholarship fund for her [Chapman’s] daughter, but hopefully we can find funding from other sources,” Mucellin said of his recollection of Farnese’s words. 

(Ted Mucellin’s wife, Michele Mucellin, works in the Philadelphia-based office of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, whose prosecutors are not involved in the trial.)

The financial donation Farnese approved from his state senate campaign bankrolled a study-abroad program in Kyrgyzstan run by Bard College for Chapman’s daughter, who was attending the University of Pennsylvania at the time.

Chapman was one of more than 50 committee members in the Eighth Ward. Although she did not in 2011 vote for the unopposed Farnese, prosecutors argue the donation backing the study-abroad program made Chapman change her mind about supporting Huntington, who then backed out of the race. In other words, prosecutors say, Chapman’s vote was sold.

Farnese’s attorneys have argued that the donation was one among dozens of gifts made from the Friends of Farnese campaign fund. He was merely helping a constituent, lawyers for Farnese have said.

Mark Shephard, one of Farnese’s lawyers, argued on Tuesday that matter was “purely a coincidence,” and the donation to Chapman was “a non-sinister gesture.”

After learning about Chapman’s money woes, Farnese unsuccessfully explored possible scholarship options for Chapman’s daughter at PNC Bank and Verizon. Farnese also wrote Mucellin an e-mail indicating that state Sen. Anthony Williams might pitch in $1,000 toward the study-abroad expenses, which he ultimately did not.

“I think the goal was to get those,” said Mucellin, who testified as part of government-granted immunity against charges.

“But if not, we were going to cut the check,” he said.

Following the donation to Bard College, Mucellin called Chapman on orders from Farnese to “take her temperature.”

“It was a somewhat angry phone call, and I asked if we’re on the same page,” Mucellin said. “And she said something to the effect of, ‘I made a promise, I’m going to honor it.'”

Keith Drobnes, an Elkins Park-based accountant who formerly kept track of Farnese’s senate campaign finances, testified about the step-by-step process of logging campaign contributions and expenditures.

Drobnes wrote a $6,000 check to Bard College with the name of Hannah Feldman, Chapman’s daughter, in the memo line. He said there was nothing unusual about the gift, other than it being the largest donation of its kind made out of the last 121 contributions from the Friends of Farnese fund.

The gift was reported, Drobnes said, and Farnese made no effort to conceal its true purpose.

“He’s always seemed to be honest to me,” Drobnes said of Farnese.

On Wednesday, the jury also received several lessons about the multi-layered system that is Philadelphia local party politics.

“What is a ward?” asked Department of Justice Attorney Robert Heberle, 32, to Huntington.

“What is a ward committee?” Heberle followed-up on direct examination.

Another government witness, Eighth Ward committeewoman Ruth Rump, was called by prosecutors to describe how committee members figure out who to vote for in ward leader elections, but on cross-examination, Rump offered some kind words about Farnese.

“I believe that he is a very responsive state senator,” said Rump, 86, saying it’s his job to go out of his way to help constituents. “I think he’s done a very good job as a state senator.”

The jury will not reconvene on Thursday, but lawyers for Farnese and Chapman are expected to file motions for a judgement of acquittal, which, if successful, would toss the case before its third day. 

If that doesn’t happen, however, the trial is set to resume on Friday.

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