This is what 'empathy' really looks like in America

Vince Fumo knew all the right people -- and they were there for him when he needed them.

Born 66 years ago into a successful South Philly family that owned a savings-and-loan association (back when they were associated with George Bailey and not with Charles Keating), Fumo built on that and chose a life in politics -- and with his MENSA-level IQ, he not only read up on Machiavelli but acted it out in his own wonderful life when he earned his Machiavellian-inspired nickname, the Prince of Darkness. If you are reading this and you are not a Philadelphian, it hardly does Fumo justice to describe him as merely a state senator, which was nominally his job from 1978 through 2008. For much of that time, Fumo was the de facto boss within the Democratic machine, the man to see in one of the most corrupt cities in America.

His duties as a lawmaker in Harrisburg still allowed Fumo time to build his family S&L, where he was now chairman, into a lucrative cash machine even as he also worked as "rainmaker" for a leading Philadelphia law firm. He held enormous sway over legislation from the state Senate Appropriations Committee, but his tentacles were everywhere, from the city's byzantine system of Democratic ward politics to obscure cash-rich agencies like the Delaware River Port Authority or the Board of City Trusts that were under the sway of Fumo allies. In 1991, Ed Rendell was elected mayor of Philadelphia, ostensibly to clean up the then-nearly bankrupt city, but instead his first mission was to kowtow to Vince Fumo, because Fumo was the guy "who could get things done," even as he moved from power lunches at the ritzy Palm to the luxury boxes at the old Vet to vacations in Florida and Martha's Vineyard. And there was one more very important thing about Vince Fumo.

He was a common crook, stealing the money that you and I paid in state and city taxes.

His rich and powerful friends had plenty of warnings. In fact, in one of those only-in-Philly political moments, Fumo was actually facing felony charges for putting "ghost employees" on the state payroll in 1978, the same year he was elected a senator. A jury of his "peers" -- i.e., regular schlubs like you and me -- voted unanimously to find Fumo guilty. But a federal judge -- one of his real peers -- threw the conviction out. Talk about foreshadowing!

As a senator, Fumo apparently felt his power and his ability to "get things done" for the city entitled him to an even more lucrative lifestyle, financed by what Fumo callled "OPM" -- other people's money. At the height of his power, the lawmaker convinced the state-regulated electric utility PECO to donate the ungodly sum of $$ million to a non-profit group that Fumo and his allies controlled. Later on, Fumo would be accused -- and ultimately convicted -- of stealing $1 million from that non-profit for his personal use. He also used state employees to fix up the large mansion he used in Philadelphia, spy on his ex-girlfriend, and work outside a farm he bought near Harrisburg. Prosecutors successfully alleged that Fumo's schemes looted another $1 million from the state treasury. In one of his more outlandish schemes, he even commandeered a yacht from Philly's Independence Seaport Museum.

In other words, Fumo was the poster child for Philadelphia's political corruption during a long era in which tens of thousands of residents gave up on the city altogether, while the left behind suffered under an unresponsive city and state government. And so when Fumo was convicted on every single count of an 137-count felony indictment, Philadelphia's pols, the city's rich and powerful, responded to the actions that sullied the city and sullied them. But not with outrage.

They responded with -- wait for it -- empathy.

Sure he did he some bad things, they said, but remember he also "got things done." Here is what Ed Rendell, now the governor of Pennsylvania, in not his first case of  writing or testfying for a corrupt public officials, wrote to the federal judge who would be sentencing Fumo. He said that the senator-turned-felon Fumo was a "ruthless politician" but one with "a deep sense of social responsibility." Meanwhile, a U.S. congressman -- Bob Brady, the Fumo ally who also runs the Philadelphia Democratic Party -- also wrote the judge after the 137 felony convictions to say that Fumo was "honest and forthright." Another pro-Fumo letter came from the former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

All told, some 250 people asked the judge for leniency, and when his sentencing came today, Fumo's clout-wielding friends, including two state senators and a city councilman, packed the federal courthouse. It was clear that the federal judge -- Ronald L. Buckwalter -- was already getting the message. Even before today's hearing, Buckwalter had issued a ruling that reduced the maximum possible sentence from 27 years to 14 years. Even then, Fumo's sentence was just a fraction of that. Just 55 months -- barely more than four-and-a-half years. Put another way, millionaire Fumo will serve just 12 days for each of the 137 felonies he committed against Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Never mind that Fumo's sentence is ridiculously short even when compared to other local corruption cases, including former city treasurer Corey Kemp, a not-so-well-connected out-of-town native whose crimes were arguably much less egregious than Fumo and who is now doing 10 years in the federal pen, or the former head of the Seaport Museum whose yacht Fumo pirated, who pleaded guilty to stealing $1.5 million (i.e., less than Fumo) and was sentenced to 15 years. The bottom line is that Fumo's abbreviated sentence is an outrage no matter what you compare it to.

There was a great irony here that was noted by the prosecutors prior to Fumo's sentencing. As reported in the Inquirer:

The prosecutors said Fumo displayed a different attitude toward a man accused of stealing an ornamental fence in his district.

They cited an e-mail in which Fumo wrote that he wanted to know in advance whom the assigned judge was and to check with the District Attorney's Office. "I want [expletive] Jail Time on this one. 1st offense or not!"

That poor guy who stole a fence was never going to get "empathy" from the criminal justice system. Even mid-level public officials like Corey Kemp don't get empathy. The only people who truly get actual empathy -- with letters and words of praise from governors and congressmen -- are the rich and powerful, the last people who actually need it the least. I know some people are going to blame this today on political party -- and God knows that the Philadelphia Democrat machine deserves every harsh word it gets, But you should know that Buckwalter was named to the federal bench by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush. This isn't about partisan politics, it's about class, and power.

That's why the timing of this is so grating. At the very moment that Fumo was getting slapped on the wrist, a bunch of Republican senators -- powerful, rich guys who happened to look a lot like Vince Fumo -- down in Washington had the nerve to complain that a Latina judge who came from the projects by way of the Ivy League might dare to show some "empathy" for the occasional poor or downtrodden whose cases might actually make it all the way through to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As if there wasn't already empathy in the American justice system... but for people like Vince Fumo, people like themselves. As CQ's Craig Crawford reported today from the Sotomayor hearing (h/t Atrios): "They are coming across as a bunch of snarky and bitter old white men who cannot bear the thought of their kind losing power." Exactly. What's happening in Washington isn't even so much about Latinos or women or others gaining power, or empathy, or whatever you want to call it, but about the notion that the Vince Fumo class could actually lose that mojo, and the terror that that creates.

How ironic that the Fumo outrage comes on the 220th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille? Two centuries later, and the First Estate is still hoarding all the gunpowder, metaphorically speaking. Hopefully what's happening in D.C. is one small step towards crashing the gate for good.