Editorial: A sentence -- and a question

Link: A sentence -- and a question [Daily News]

THE GOOD WORKS of former state Sen. Vince Fumo in his 30 years of public service means his time in prison will be far less than what sentencing guidelines suggested and what many taxpayers expected for his crimes: four years and seven months.

From the time Fumo's indictment was announced in 2007 to his March conviction and to yesterday's sentencing, the debate has focused on "how bad was this behavior, anyway?"

One camp claimed that for compromising the public trust, he should go to jail for a very long time. The other camp held that Fumo's good deeds for the city and the state in his years of public office somehow mitigated the damage of his crimes- in essence, that the favorable legislation he traded in return for $17 million to start a nonprofit, which he then raided, was quid pro quo for the power and influence that he used often to benefit the city.

Clearly, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter joined that latter camp when he sentenced Fumo yesterday in federal prison. He cited Fumo's "exceptional" work in the Senate and the many letters written on his behalf.

And there lies the outrage. Not because we want to see anyone rot in jail. But because as we were waiting for this day to come, questions were being raised about state Sen. John Mellow, D-Lackawana, who has spent $200,000 in taxpayer money renting an office that was partly owned by his wife and later by himself.

That could push the Bonusgate scandal off the map - whereby 12 current and former lawmakers were charged by the state attorney general with paying aides bonuses for working on political campaigns with public money.

What we fear is that the judge's light sentence gives a pass to this pervasive culture of corruption, self-dealing and questionable ethics in Harrisburg and elsewhere in government.

Of course, Judge Buckwalter's sentencing had to be based on the crimes before him. And his view of the 137 counts of fraud, obstruction of justice and other crimes?

"It's not murder, it's not robbery, it's not even violent . . . it's not the selling of a political office." (Oh, really?)

But as far as we're concerned, the sentencing of a public servant for corruption and fraud should acknowledge that there is far more at stake than the financial damages of the crimes. (In addition to being ordered to pay $676,000 in restitution to Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, Fumo was fined $410,000 and must pay the Senate $1.3 million).

Sentencing should also acknowledge that the damage for such crimes is far more widespread: The Fumo case has damaged everyone in the state, especially those who vote in good faith, and are naive enough to expect honest and ethical dealings from those they elect.

Buckwalter also claims that despite the large numbers of Philadelphia politicians who have gone to jail - including Corey Kemp (10 years) and Rick Mariano (6 1/2 years) - it doesn't seem to deter that criminal conduct.

But it does send an important message: that society does not tolerate corruption - no matter how many trash pickups, pretty parks and other goodies are thrown in its direction.

The idea that we should tolerate corruption as the price we pay for good is an unacceptable standard for life - and for justice.