Lawyers make final pitches to jurors in Farnese's federal fraud trial

File photo: Pennsylvania State Senator Larry Farnese, who was indicted on a vote buying scheme on Tuesday, walks to a town hall meeting with the Center City Residents Association on Thursday, May 12, 2016 at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

In their final pitch to the jury, prosecutors in Larry Farnese's federal fraud trial painted the state senator as so desperate five years ago to become leader of the city's Eighth Democratic Ward that he was willing to buy the vote of a committeewoman to do it.

Luckily for him, prosecutor Robert Heberle said during his closing argument Monday, one member of the ward committee, Ellen Chapman, was so desperate for money to fund her daughter's education that she was willing to sell her vote.

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

But defense lawyers, in their final remarks, called prosecutors desperate, too - so desperate to score a conviction that they twisted a perfectly legal act of constituent service into a nefarious tale of corruption.

Where the jury of seven women and five men stands in that debate as it begins deliberations Tuesday could determine whether Farnese will become the third consecutive state senator from his district to end his political career in a prison cell.

"This is not the way criminals act," Farnese lawyer Mark Sheppard told the jury, referring to the scores of emails, campaign-finance filings, and other paperwork documenting the senator's $6,000 contribution to the tuition owed by Chapman's daughter. "Criminals don't file public records," he said. "Criminals don't keep the emails that the government now alleges are evidence of an illicit agreement. Criminals don't pay bribes with checks."

Throughout the five-day trial before U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe, both sides have sparred over how to describe that payment, which went to fund a study-abroad trip to Kyrgyzstan for Chapman's daughter, Hannah Feldman, then at the University of Pennsylvania.

What the defense has described as a "good deed" for a deserving constituent, prosecutors called a bribe.

They noted that it is the largest donation Farnese ever reported on campaign-finance filings to a nonpolitical expense.

Government witnesses have testified that Chapman appeared conflicted about her decision to give the senator her backing in the ward leader race.

A quid pro quo agreement with Farnese, Heberle said, would explain why Chapman was in tears when she informed Farnese's rival in the race, a good friend, that she would be throwing her support behind the senator due to the financial aid he promised to find for her daughter.

If her dealings with Farnese were aboveboard, he asked, "why would Chapman be crying over just having secured funding for her daughter? Wouldn't that be great news?"

But Chapman lawyer Elizabeth Toplin offered an alternative explanation.

"Sometimes your friend isn't the right person for the job and it's not easy to tell him that," she told the jury. "If the fact that [Farnese] took an interest in her child and didn't blow her off factored into her decision to support him, that's not a quid pro quo. . . . That's what we would all do."

The senator's own lawyers also emphasized that point with their final witness Monday - Center City lawyer Lawrence Tabas, an expert in Pennsylvania election law. He testified that state campaign-finance statutes allow candidates to spend their money on just about anything that might help influence an election.

But in Farnese's case, Sheppard argued in his closing remarks, he didn't even need Chapman's support. Several committee members that testified at the trial described Farnese as a clear front-runner in the ward leader race from the beginning.

If Farnese was trying to swing the election through bribery, Sheppard asked, why would he pay off only one out of the more than 50 voters he needed to win?

"This was not a bribe," he said. "This was Sen. Farnese doing what he does best - helping others."