As state Sen. Larry Farnese enjoys his acquittal on federal bribery charges, his trial may prove to be an unexpected headache for an unlikely figure.
Lawrence Tabas – the PA GOP counsel who is running to be the state party’s next chair – testified at Farnese’s trial as a defense expert, where he argued that the state senator’s paying to send a ward official’s daughter on an overseas trip was hardly criminal.
“It’s been quite common for candidate committees to make scholarships or charitable contributions over the years.” Tabas said in court.
That’s not sitting well with at least one of the state’s committee members, who will pick the next chair. Federal prosecutors argued the payment was made to influence a ward election.
In an email, Juniata County GOP committee member Jenise Harris, who supports Tabas’ rival Val DiGiorgio, says his appearance is a betrayal that amounts to “secretly helping (a) corrupt Philadelphia Democrat.”
“Democratic Senator Farnese was acquitted in large part due to Lawrence Tabas' testimony,” Harris writes. “A Philly Democrat is free because of Lawrence.”
The fact that Farnese got off means little to Harris; in fact, she says that’s exactly the problem – that Tabas' testimony was the key to Farnese's exoneration. Harris’ email concludes that the only correct reaction to Tabas’ testimony is to back DiGiorgio.
Tabas says he was simply describing the state’s election laws.
“Unfortunately there's a lot of fake news involving this case. The fact is that I’m a recognized expert in campaign finance law,” the Obermayer lawyer told City & State. “The federal government has been trying to criminalize activities that are clearly lawful. This would have had a terrible impact on Republican candidates and committees.”
At trial, Tabas introduced evidence that at least 80 Republican organizations or elected officials had forked over scholarship money over the last 10 years that, on paper, are hard to distinguish from the payment Farnese made to Bard College. And that’s not even counting charitable scholarship donations by those same Republicans.
Tabas supporters say the email is a red herring.
Mike Baker, Armstrong County committee person, said Harris worked for a consulting firm affiliated with Harrisburg lobbyist Ray Zaborney, who was being paid to promote DiGiorgio's rival campaign for the chairmanship. A previously distributed "fact sheet" tearing into Tabas bore Zaborney's name.
"It's distributing that a paid political operative is trying to tarnish the sterling reputation of Lawrence Tabas," Baker added, of the more recent message.
But Zaborney shot back at Baker, in an email.
"I am not being paid a dime to help Val DiGiorgio," he said, "Republicans like me do not need to be paid to support a leader like Val DiGiorgio. Lawrence has consistently lied about Val, all while helping Democrat Larry Farnese."
Tabas centrality to the trial's outcome is a bit of overstatement – many observers publicly described the federal bribery charges as pretty thin. But the timing of the attacks aren’t great for Tabas, who is locked in a tight and extremely contentious race with DiGiorgio which will conclude this Saturday.
"I really feel that this is an act of desperation by my opponent's operatives because they know I’m winning," Tabas said, of the fracas around his testimony.