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Fumo ponders political comeback - at party level

After three decades in the state Senate and four years in prison, Vincent J. Fumo is eyeing a political comeback.

After three decades in the state Senate and four years in prison, Vincent J. Fumo is eyeing a political comeback.

In a sworn deposition filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court this week, Fumo said he was contemplating "running for a party office."

A party office, not a public one.

Fumo, 70, went on to say he was considering seeking election to Democratic State Committee.

State law bans politicians convicted of serious crimes from serving as elected public officials.

But it appears that this ban does not apply to positions with partisan organizations, even those, such as the Democratic and Republican State Committees, in which candidates are selected at the ballot box during regular elections.

Fumo spoke of his possible plans as he answered questions as part of a fight with a former friend, South Jersey restaurateur Andrew Cosenza.

In a lawsuit filed from behind bars, Fumo accused Cosenza of using his role as chairman of Fumo's campaign fund to drain the fund dry, paying $250,000 to himself or his companies while hiding the payouts from Fumo.

Cosenza insists that the payments were proper, reimbursements for money spent on political events in Fumo's absence and payments to him as a political consultant. Cosenza's lawyer, Joseph P. Grimes, on Monday asked a judge to dismiss Fumo's case, saying the former senator had missed key deadlines to challenge the spending.

In 2009, Fumo, once one of the most powerful Democrats in Pennsylvania, was found guilty of all counts in a massive federal indictment charging him with a $4.3 million ripoff of the Senate and two Philadelphia nonprofits. He lost his law license and his state pension, and was sent to prison in Ashland, Ky.

He was released in August to serve the remaining months of his sentence - until Feb. 2 of next year - under home confinement. After that, he faces three years of supervised probation.

Fumo could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In recent weeks, he has said that federal prison rules prevent him from speaking with reporters until after Feb. 2.

Fumo's lawyer, Dion G. Rassias, declined to discuss Fumo's possible political ambitions. But he said it would be a mistake to think Fumo's future endeavors would be limited to politics.

"In light of the communications he has received, Vince has a lot of options, a lot of things he can do," Rassias said Wednesday.

In a Nov. 8 deposition, Grimes asked Fumo whether he had been a candidate for office in 2012. That was the year Fumo sued Cosenza. It was also Fumo's fourth year in prison.

Fumo replied: "I was contemplating and continue to contemplate running for party office."

Asked to elaborate, he answered: "I can give you an example - state committee, a member of the Pennsylvania State Committee, is an elected office." He said winning such a position was what he had been "most concerned about."

Registered Democrats elect several hundred members to their state committee - by state Senate districts. The term of the unpaid post is four years.

According to the Pennsylvania constitution, no one "convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime" may hold "any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth." Appeals courts have said that people convicted of felonies - like Fumo - are guilty of an "infamous crime" and cannot hold elected public office.

That said, there does not seem to be a ban on party positions.

Adam C. Bonin, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in election law, said Fumo could go for it.

"I'm not aware of anything in the Pennsylvania constitution or the bylaws of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee which would bar former Sen. Fumo from standing before the voters and seeking this office," Bonin said.

"While a post on state committee is an elected office, these are not public officials. These are officials of a political party."

Robert Asher, a top Republican fund-raiser, has served since 1998 as one of the three Pennsylvania members of the Republican National Committee. He was convicted, along with a state treasurer, of mail fraud, perjury, and conspiracy charges stemming from awarding of a state contract.

But Asher did not step into the post until a dozen years after his conviction. He was first appointed to the prestigious, if unpaid, spot to fill out a vacancy with the backing of then-Gov. Tom Ridge.

Under Republican Party rules, about 350 party members are elected every four years. They, in turn, elect the state's RNC members.

In Philadelphia, federal prosecutors and probation officers in 2011 were able to bar a felon from becoming a Democratic ward leader.

Probation officials and prosecutor Richard Barrett, chief of public corruption unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office, persuaded a judge to modify probationary terms midsentence to bar Carlos Matos from running a ward.

Matos, convicted of paying bribes to politicians, had served three years in prison and was getting back into politics when the judge limited his conduct.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer, a lead prosecutor in the Fumo case, declined to comment Wednesday.

If Fumo should run for the committee from his old Senate district in South Philadelphia, he could ask for pointers from a woman elected there in 2010: Lorraine DiSpaldo.

DiSpaldo, a former aide to a state representative, was sentenced last month to 18 months in federal prison for her role in a scheme to defraud state government.