State Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, during a news conference April 4, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP photo by Matt Rourke)
State Sen. Lawrence Farnese’s bribery trial kicked off Tuesday with a federal prosecutor describing him as an opportunistic politician willing to pay for a Philadelphia Democratic committeewoman’s vote to make him a city ward leader.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis said in U.S. district court in Philadelphia on Tuesday that Farnese wanted to be a ward leader in 2011 so he could have the power to get other candidates elected. Farnese was already a senator at the time of the ward leader election.
“It’s a good position for a politician to have because when you help candidates get elected, those people owe you something,” Kravis said. “Senator Farnese wanted to be a ward leader very, very badly.”
Kravis said that city Democratic committeewoman Ellen Chapman originally wasn’t going to vote for Farnese, but changed her tune when he offered to pay $6,000 of her daughter’s tuition for a study abroad program to Kyrgyzstan offered by Bard College in New York state.
The prosecutor said a series of emails and phone calls between Farnese and his co-defendant Chapman about the tuition and the ward leader vote were the smoking gun.
Mark Sheppard, Farnese’s lawyer, implored the jury to use their “common sense.”
“This is no smoking gun,” Sheppard said, maintaining that the $6,000 from Farnese’s campaign fund to Bard was a donation done in the name of constituent service for the father of Chapman’s daughter.
Sheppard also listed other holes he felt riddled the government’s case. Would a bribe really be paid to only one of the 42 voting committee members? Would it be done on the same day Farnese announced his candidacy? Would he have done it by writing a check to Bard with Chapman’s daughter’s name on the subject line? Would he report it on his public financial disclosure?
“The evidence in this case will show that what this was a public figure who was helping a constituent. It’s the kind of thing we expect our public officials to do every day,” Sheppard said.
“Don’t let them make this into something dirty,” he added.
Sheppard said that Farnese had not abused his office, public money, or did anything that would qualify as public corruption. “This is a purely private matter. It has nothing to do with the public good. It’s about the Democratic Party,” Sheppard said.
Attorneys for both defendants have argued that the case is an example of federal overreach into local affairs.
Chapman’s lawyer, federal defender Stuart Patchen, stressed to the jury that prosecutors had to prove that Farnese agreed to pay Chapman for her vote on the same phone call to prove quid pro quo, something he said they couldn’t do.
Patchen also made sure to point out that one of the government’s key witnesses, Farnese’s political adviser Ted Mucellin, is testifying under immunity and that his wife works for the same U.S. Attorney’s Office that is prosecuting his client.
The trial is expected to stretch into early next week. A few hours prior to opening statements on Tuesday morning, presiding U.S. District Judge Cynthia Rufe of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed a female member of the jury. The reason for the dismissal is unclear. The dismissed juror was replaced by an alternate.
P.J. D’Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PJDannunzioTLI.