LONG BEFORE former state Sen. Vince Fumo's corruption trial began, federal prosecutors discussed the terms of a possible plea agreement in which he would admit guilt to a single count of fraud in exchange for a jail sentence of no more than five years.

The potential plea terms were discussed in late December 2007 or early January 2008, people with knowledge of the discussions said yesterday.

The proposed five-year sentence was five months more than the sentence imposed Tuesday on Fumo - after a 71-day trial that cost him more than $1 million in legal fees and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in court and related costs.

A source familiar with the initial round of plea discussions, which involved prosecutors, Fumo's defense team and the FBI, said that no plea agreement had been reached because there was "never any real serious acceptance of any kind of terms by Fumo."

There was also another stumbling block, a person with knowledge of the discussions said: Fumo's then-new defense attorney, Dennis Cogan - who, along with prosecutors, declined to comment for this story - wasn't up to speed on the case, and didn't even know Fumo. Thus, he was in no position to be discussing plea terms.

Indeed, while addressing the court at Fumo's sentencing, Cogan said that he didn't have his first serious discussion with Fumo about the charges in the case until February 2008, a year

after Fumo was indicted by the feds. Fumo had severed legal ties with his original attorney, Richard A. Sprague, in September 2007.

As the case moved through its pre-trial phase last summer, prosecutors pressed Fumo's defense about why it wanted to try the case, sources said.

A person familiar with the discussions said that Fumo's defense believed that the government's offer of a five-year sentence had been withdrawn in February 2008.

The government was prepared to discuss new plea terms, but Fumo would have had to agree to a sentence that would be capped at 10 years, a person familiar with the discussions said. Sources said that the talks at that point weren't serious.

Fumo's defense believed that the feds wanted Fumo to take a deal only on their terms, and prosecutors didn't believe that defense attorneys had any real authority from Fumo to strike a deal, sources said.

Then, last October, as the trial date approached and U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter was assigned to the Fumo case after the previous presiding judge became ill, one last opportunity presented itself.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys met with Buckwalter, who asked the parties if there was any chance that the case could be resolved without going to trial, though he was careful to note that he could not be involved in any plea discussions, a person with knowledge of the meeting said.

But prosecutors told the judge that there was no chance of a plea in the case because Fumo was not interested in a plea, the source said. *