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U.S. charges State Sen. Farnese with bribery

State Sen. Larry Farnese of Philadelphia was accused in a federal indictment Tuesday of using a $6,000 bribe to sway a 2011 election for Democratic ward leader in Center City's Eighth Ward.

State Sen. Larry Farnese.
State Sen. Larry Farnese.Read moreAP Photo/Matt Rourke

State Sen. Larry Farnese of Philadelphia was accused in a federal indictment Tuesday of using a $6,000 bribe to sway a 2011 election for Democratic ward leader in Center City's Eighth Ward.

Farnese, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, paid $6,000 to fund a college-study-abroad program for the daughter of a committeewoman in the ward, Ellen Chapman, who was also charged in the indictment.

Chapman "had originally intended to support a different candidate in the ward leader election" but switched her vote to help Farnese, according to federal prosecutors.

Farnese, 47, and Chapman, 62, were charged with conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and violations of the Travel Act.

Mark Sheppard, Farnese's attorney, said Tuesday that the legislator was innocent, and was not accused of misusing his government office or public funds or taking "any gift or kickback."

"Larry Farnese is 100 percent innocent of these novel charges and expects to be fully exonerated," Sheppard said in a statement. "These charges have no connection whatsoever to his senatorial office."

Chapman's lawyer, Stuart Patchen, declined comment.

The federal investigation, first reported in April by the Inquirer, became public when word spread that another Farnese lawyer was asking Eighth Ward Democratic Committee members to sign declarations that they were "not offered anything of pecuniary value" to support Farnese in the Dec. 7, 2011, ward-leader election.

Two men who had considered running for ward leader, Gregg Kravitz and Stephen Huntington, confirmed in April that they had been questioned by FBI agents.

The former Eighth Ward leader, Stephanie Singer - former chairwoman of the city commissioners - said she, too, was questioned by the FBI about the election.

The indictment centers on a $6,000 payment made by Farnese's political action committee, Friends of Farnese, in July 2011 to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

It cites a chain of five emails in 2011 among Farnese, Chapman, and two people identified only as "Person A" and "Person B," saying Chapman's daughter had a $10,000 scholarship to study abroad but needed "just over $14,000 to cover tuition."

The indictment does not name Chapman's daughter or say where she studied abroad.

Farnese listed the $6,000 as a "donation" to Bard College on a 2011 campaign finance report.

"The government makes these charges despite the fact that the donation was properly reported almost five years ago, was given some five months before a unanimous ward vote in which the committeewoman did not even participate; and no other committee person has claimed to have been offered anything of value by Sen. Farnese," Sheppard's statement said.

Farnese lawyer Gregory Harvey, who is an election-law expert, said in April that 40 people had signed declarations that they had received no financial benefit for how they voted in the ward leader election.

The post of Democratic ward leader is unpaid but influential. Ward leaders are elected by committee people, the party's foot soldiers, two of whom are elected in each voting division.

Farnese, a lawyer, was first elected the Eighth Ward's Democratic leader in 2011 - three years after he won the state Senate's First District seat. He was backed in that race by then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a political patron who later served time in federal prison on public corruption charges.

Before Fumo, the Senate seat was held by Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, who was indicted in 1977 on public corruption charges, pleaded guilty, and served time in federal prison. Cianfrani died in 2002.

Farnese is on the Nov. 8 general election ballot seeking a third four-year term in office. There is no Republican challenger for the seat. Farnese defeated John Morley Jr. in the April 26 Democratic primary with 74 percent of the vote.

The First District runs from Port Richmond and Fairmount south to South Philadelphia and the Philadelphia International Airport.

The investigation of Farnese's actions was led by prosecutors in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in Washington, though any trial on the charges is expected to occur here. Officials said the case was transferred because of an unspecified conflict of interest for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia.

Ted Mucellin, Farnese's political director, is married to a community outreach coordinator in the local prosecutor's office. Mucellin declined to comment Tuesday.

If it was unusual to see a federal case made over something as seemingly small-potatoes as a Philadelphia ward leader's election, defense lawyer William Brennan, who represented Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary in a 2014 federal ticket-fixing case, said he found the investigation of a piece with other recent federal corruption prosecutions in Pennsylvania.

In case after case, federal authorities have attacked firmly entrenched and long-standing ways of doing business, such as the pay-to-play culture in state and city governments, or the fixing of traffic tickets for the politically connected at the now-abolished Traffic Court.

"They've taken a position with public-corruption cases that no stone will be left unturned," Brennan said Tuesday. "I felt that way with the Traffic Court case. Whether or not you think it's just part of the culture of how things work here, they've drawn a line in the sand."

215-854-5973 @ByChrisBrennan