Prosecutors, defense clash over whether $6,000 gift from Pa. Sen. Farnese was bribe or ‘good deed’

    State Sen. Larry Farnese

    State Sen. Larry Farnese

    Was an eight-minute unrecorded phone conversation state Sen. Larry Farnese made in 2011 to a Democratic party committeewoman offering to financially support her family a vote-buying act, or just an elected official helping out a constituent?

    This question is at the core of the federal trial of Farnese and ward committeewoman Ellen Chapman, who prosecutors say both engaged in bribery through a quid-pro-quo scheme in which Farnese scored Chapman’s support in exchange for $6,000.

    At the time, a ward leader vacancy opened up in Philadelphia’s Eighth Ward and Farnese was angling for the position in addition to being a state senator.

    Chapman was among more than 50 committee members that Farnese reached out to seeking support, his defense attorney said. Committee members elect ward leaders, so currying their favor can ensure an election victory. 

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Wanting a local party position on top of his seat in Harrisburg, prosecutors said, was a way to assist with getting out the vote in the area, candidate endorsements and fundraising efforts for the Democratic Party.

    “When you are a ward leader, you are in a position to make some powerful friends,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis told jurors on Tuesday during the trial’s opening arguments. “Senator Farnese wanted to be a ward leader very, very badly.”

    Chapman, among the more than 50 committee people in the Eighth Ward, had originally supported candidate Stephen Huntington for ward leader. When $6,000 from Farnese’s senate campaign fund was sent to benefit Chapman’s family, she switched her support for Farnese, who subsequently won the ward leader election. 

    Before the race, Chapman called Huntington in tears, saying she would no longer be voting for him, prosecutors say. Shortly after, Huntington dropped out of the race.

    Chapman did not vote in the ward election that Farnese won, but prosecutors say Chapman’s decision to no longer support Huntington was influenced by the donation. 

    The $6,000 donation was sent to Bard College to support Chapman’s daughter, Hannah Feldman, who was then in college and needed the funds to cover expenses for a study abroad program in Kyrgyzstan.

    “This case is about a mother, a daughter and a state senator. And it’s about what happens when the daughter asked the mother for help,” said public defender Stuart Patchen, who is representing Chapman.

    Both Chapman and Farnese concealed what the money was being used for, prosecutors argue, despite its purpose being clear. “The daughter’s name is on the memo line of the check,” Kravis told jurors.

    The government is expected to put witnesses on the stand who have knowledge of the eight-minute conversation, but since it was not recorded, the content of the conversation is sure to provoke debate.

    “They have to prove what happened in those eight minutes happened beyond a reasonable doubt,” Public defender Stuart Patchen, who is representing Chapman, told jurors. 

    Another crucial part of the trial will likely lean on the testimony of Ted Mucellin, a former official in the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter and onetime political director for Farnese.

    Mucellin, who is also an attorney, is the government’s star witness. His testimony is part of an immunity deal he struck with the Department of Justice in which he will not be charged with any crimes in exchange for his cooperation. 

    Prosecutors say the jury will see an email Mucellin wrote in which he says that the payment has been made to Chapman and, in return, she is planning to vote for Farnese.

    “Mucellin puts it right out there,” Assistant U.S Attorney Kravis said. 

    He is expected to take the stand on Wednesday. 

    (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.)

    Moreover, the government told the jury of seven women and five men that Farnese’s former treasurer will testify that he was never told the payment to Chapman’s daughter was being made. He is expected to say that he never approved it since it would have been improper. 

    “It is also a crime,” Kravis said.

    Patchen said the committee woman was never offered anything for her vote, nor did she solicit a donation in exchange for her support. 

    Chapman told Farnese about her money problems at an election party, and Farnese then tried to see if he could assist in finding some kind of scholarship money. He suggested she reach out to Verizon and PNC Bank.

    “There is nothing illegal or wrong with a senator helping a constituent find a scholarship or grant,” Patchen said. “It’s only a crime if the money was solicited and made in exchange for the vote, and that it happened at the same time.”

    That, Patchen said, didn’t happen here.

    “This case will offend your sense of justice,” he said.

    Farnese’s attorney Mark Sheppard offered a similar rebuttal to the government’s charges.

    “Farnese’s defense is really, really simple: this was not a bribe. It was never intended to be a bribe. There was never any discussion of it being a bribe,” Sheppard said. “[This] was a public figure helping a constituent.”

    Shephard said the donation to Chapman and Chapman’s support of Farnese is “purely a coincidence,” and the donation to Chapman was “a non-sinister gesture.”

    Shephard said the two acts — the donation, and the vote — were on different tracks and never crossed, as the government alleges. 

    “It was a good deed being done the same time as a ward election, and the two had nothing to do with each other,” Shephard said. “Don’t let them make this into something dirty.”

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal