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Farnese acquitted in federal fraud trial

A federal jury on Wednesday acquitted State Sen. Larry Farnese of conspiracy and fraud charges, rejecting what his lawyers had described as a Justice Department attempt to criminalize behavior that had been lawful in Pennsylvania politics for years.

The panel of seven women and five men took about four hours to rebuff prosecutors' claims that the Center City Democrat bribed his way to victory in a 2011 election for ward leader.

Instead, the jury's decision appeared to affirm the defense narrative that the $6,000 he paid to send a city committeewoman's daughter on a study-abroad trip was an act of constituent service.

"From Day One, I said I was innocent and that I believed in the system both as an attorney and a public official," the senator said. "Once again, the system proved that it works."

Farnese, a boyish-looking 48, wiped his eyes with a handkerchief as the jury read out "not guilty" 13 times – once for each of the charges of conspiracy, fraud, and violations of the Travel Act against him. Outside the courtroom, a supporter ran up to hug him, saying, "You've got it. You're back."

Ellen Chapman, the committeewoman at the center of the case, was also acquitted Wednesday. Before jurors filed out of the courtroom, she called out to them: "My faith in my country is renewed."

The verdict came after five days of testimony that cast a harsh spotlight on Pennsylvania's loose campaign-finance laws and what the defense described as an overreaching Justice Department effort to regulate the internal affairs of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee.

Again and again, defense lawyers Mark Sheppard, Stuart Patchen, Elizabeth Toplin, and Arianna Goodman characterized the government's evidence as weak and questioned why prosecutors had bothered bringing the case.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe appeared to acknowledge their argument as she addressed Farnese and Chapman, 62, after jurors had left the courtroom.

"I wish you the best, and I hope that you can put this experience behind you," she said. "As for the government, I will not comment. I know you're diligent beyond nature."

The case was prosecuted by Jonathan Kravis and Robert Heberle of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in Washington, which was brought in because the star government witness – Farnese political consultant Ted Mucellin – is married to an employee of the local U.S. Attorney's Office.

There was little dispute throughout the trial on the basic details of what occurred.

While seeking in 2011 to become the leader of Center City's Eighth Democratic Ward, Farnese instructed his campaign fund to pay $6,000 to a New York college administering a study-abroad program in Kyrgyzstan in which Chapman's daughter hoped to enroll.

The day Farnese agreed to help her, Chapman withdrew her support for Stephen Huntington, Farnese's chief rival for the ward leader post.

Testifying last week, Huntington recalled the conversation with Chapman in which she tearfully admitted to him that she was throwing her support behind the senator.

"She stated that the financial arrangements [she had discussed with Farnese] would not be there if she voted for me," he said.

Prosecutors asked over and over what legitimate purpose Farnese could have had in donating $6,000 to benefit the education of one specific constituent.

But, as defense expert witness and election lawyer Lawrence J. Tabas testified in the trial's waning days: "It's been quite common for candidate committees to make scholarships or charitable contributions over the years."

Farnese went on to win the ward election by a unanimous vote. But by that time, Huntington had dropped out of the race and Chapman was no longer on the committee.

Whether Chapman held up her end of her bargain with Farnese didn't matter, Heberle said during closing arguments Monday.

"The money and the promise to vote for Farnese were tied together," he said. "Quid pro quo. This for that. There is a word for such a payment – it's a bribe."

But what prosecutors described as a payoff, Farnese's lawyer Sheppard maintained was nothing more than a "good deed" in support of a deserving student that had nothing to do with the ward election.

"This was Sen. Farnese doing what he does best – helping others," he said.

It didn't make sense, he said in his closing arguments, for Farnese to bribe just one of the upward of 50 Eighth Ward committee members if he hoped to swing an election. What's more, Sheppard argued, his client had the election all but wrapped up even before he had officially declared he was seeking the job.

"He had the majority of the votes, and could probably — even with opposition — get all but 10 votes," committeeman Sam Hopkins testified Friday. "That was without Larry making a single phone call."

The case against Farnese came eight years after prosecutors won a blockbuster 137-count conviction against his predecessor, former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who was sentenced to more than four years for misdirecting and misspending millions of dollars to peddle influence.

Before Fumo, former State Sen. Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, who also represented the First District, was convicted of larding his payroll with ghost employees and sentenced to five years in prison.

Farnese first won election to the district — which includes Center City and stretches from Philadelphia International Airport north to portions of Brewerytown and Port Richmond — in 2008, vowing to "restore the people's trust."

As he left the courthouse Wednesday, he echoed those remarks.

"The system takes time, but it gets it right," he said. "I'm ready to get back to work, representing the people of this district."