Undercutting a key defense element in the corruption trial of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, three board members of a Fumo-backed charity testified yesterday that they never gave advance approval to any plan to compensate him for the millions he had raised for the nonprofit.
In fact, the three, including board chairman Joseph Russo, said the idea never even came up.
Federal prosecutors called Russo and the others to the stand as they continued efforts to prove that Fumo and his codefendant, Ruth Arnao, looted the charity, Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, of about $1.4 million for purchases, including power tools, luxury vehicles, vacuum cleaners and expensive paint.
Prosecutors also were trying to rebut the defense's contention that Fumo could have legitimately been paid a fee for bringing in contributions to the charity, including $17 million from Peco Energy.
Fumo's lawyers contend that some organizations pay as much as a 20 percent fund-raising commission and that Fumo was entitled to the power tools and other gifts because of his success at raising money.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer, Citizens' Alliance board member John Sfrisi told the jury that the board rushed to tighten its procedures after The Inquirer began reporting about huge and then-anonymous donations to the charity.
In December 2003, he said, the board started having regular meetings and, in one fell swoop, the members approved years of past spending.
"I think they wanted to do things the correct way. They wanted to make sure everything was totally by the book. They were definitely changing how things were done," testified Sfrisi, a teacher who joined the board around 2001.
Russo, who said he joined the board around 2000 or 2001, told the jury that he had not been aware that Citizens' Alliance had paid for political polling, luxury vehicles, a bulldozer that was used at Fumo's farm, a lawsuit initiated against a Fumo enemy, or a plan to oppose a beach project at the Jersey Shore.
"Were you ever consulted about any of these?" asked Zauzmer.
"No," replied Russo.
Sfrisi, Russo and the third board member, Jeffrey Travelina, a finance director for Philadelphia Traffic Court, said they didn't read the collection of documents that ratified years of past actions.
"I didn't read them, I just signed them," said Travelina.
All three board members have ties to longtime Fumo friend Roseanne Pauciello, a ward leader in South Philadelphia.
Sfrisi is a Democratic committeeman and a cousin of Pauciello's. Russo is a board member of the Board of Revision of Taxes who described himself as a "very good friend" of Pauciello's. Travelina is a nephew of Pauciello's.
During cross-examination, the defense highlighted the wide range of community projects undertaken by Citizens' Alliance, which was formed to help revitalize South Philadelphia.
Sfrisi said he also believed that Arnao, the former head of Citizens' Alliance, worked hard on behalf of the charity and had done a good job.
And her defense attorney, Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., referred to a number of the charity's expenditures and asked Russo whether he could have found out more information if he had wanted.
"If you wanted to know these things, do you think Ruth would have been honest and discussed them with you?" asked Jacobs.
"Yes," Russo replied.