Larry Farnese broke the streak.
After barely a day of deliberations, a jury acquitted the Democratic state senator on bribery charges brought against him by the Department of Justice. The last two men to represent the First Senatorial District had been put away on corruption charges.
The vindication for Farnese comes after months of speculation within political circles that federal prosecutors had gone too far after winning several successful anti-corruption cases against the likes of Congressman Chaka Fattah and state Rep. Leslie Acosta.
At the time of the indictment, some said the Farnese case was an attempt by the federal government to “criminalize” local politics. Others drew comparisons to a US Supreme Court decision overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
“In the legal community, we had the same thoughts: The charges were something of a reach,” said federal prosecutor-turned-defense attorney William DeStefano. “The jury validated those comments.”
The charges hinged around a $6,000 payment made by Farnese’s campaign to Bard College in 2011 – money that helped pay for Democratic committeeperson Ellen Chapman’s daughter to go on a study abroad program in Kyrgyzstan.
The feds called it bribery, given to induce Chapman to re-elect Farnese as head of the 8th Ward in an ultimately anticlimactic contest against lawyer Stephen Huntingdon. The committeeperson switched her support, and Huntingdon eventually dropped out of the running.
Defense lawyers said it didn’t make sense to bribe only one of many ward officials for a vote and moved to have the entire case tossed out of court. They pointed out that the senator had felt so comfortable with the payment that he reported it on his campaign finance statements.
Jurors ultimately sided with the defense, which argued during trial that the payment was just the kind of “constituent service” work that a politician might perform.
“From the government's point of view, there was no dispute about the $6,000 or that the mother took it and changed her vote. If you look at it simplistically, it does look like a quid pro quo,” DeStefano said. “But when you peel back the onion a little...I mean, you’re talking about one vote – and he didn’t even need it to carry the day.”
The former prosecutor said he expected the Farnese case would have a chilling effect on the high-profile anti-corruption efforts undertaken in Philadelphia. DeStefano, who unsuccessfully fought off federal charges brought against Farnese’s predecessor, Vince Fumo, noted that the acquittal came in light of the recent botched prosecutions of Philadelphia traffic court judges and the city’s narcotics squad.
“When you look at all of those cases put together over a few years, the message is, ‘Maybe we are overreaching,’” he said.
DiStefano also speculated that the years-long emphasis on combating government corruption – which a trail of convictions shows is still a serious problem – may have begun to backfire. He estimated that the Philadelphia FBI’s anti-corruption unit had grown to include as many as 60 agents.
“The unit got so big that (a former FBI supervisor) told me they had to split it into two separate squads. It’s grown significantly over the years,” he said. “I think you may have got all these dogs chasing a couple of cats.”
A Farnese spokesperson declined a request for comment. Farnese earlier told the Inquirer: “I’m ready to get back to work, representing the people of this district.”
The FBI, which conducted the investigation into Farnese, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Also silent was state Sen. John Yudichak, who called for Farnese’s ouster during a brief Democratic leadership battle in Harrisburg. He even proposed changing the Senate rules to force indicted pols to step down from leadership positions – Farnese still serves as the Democratic Caucus secretary.
“I know what the court of public opinion will decide,” Yudichak said of the case’s outcome, in November of last year.