Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tom Ferrick Jr. | The Prince wanted too much, and too much wasn't enough

Vince Fumo's downfall was caused by excessive excess. It was not simply greed, but an arrogance born of power.

I got to page 100 in the Vince Fumo indictment before I was stopped short.

It was the tiki torches that did it.

The indictment was rolling along, cataloging details of the $75,000 that Vince and his minion, Ruth Arnao, allegedly spent on personal shopping sprees, all of it charged to Citizen's Alliance, the Fumo tax-exempt charity.

It was a long list that included a book called The Encyclopedia of Country Living, $3,900 worth of mosquito magnets, $125 for accessories for a turkey fryer, $500 for a meat saw and grinder - and $171.06 for tiki torches.

At this point, a thought crossed my mind: I wonder when Vincent went mad.

I don't mean mad in a psychiatric or clinical way. I mean mad in a Shakespearean way. The way Othello was mad with jealousy. The way King Lear was mad from rejection and loss of love. The way Macbeth was mad for power. Come to think of it, the sanest hero in Shakespeare's tragedies was Hamlet, and he pretended to be mad.

A pattern emerges. All these characters - these flawed heroes - had something in common. They were all excessively excessive.

So is the Vince Fumo who emerges from the 267-page drama called Criminal Case No. 06-319, United States of America v. Vincent J. Fumo et al, filed on Tuesday by the U.S. attorney.

It is the tale of a state senator with all the accoutrements of wealth and power - the country farm and city mansion, the house at the shore and the condo in Florida, the luxury cars and the private jet, the personal servants and the (many) girlfriends. And it wasn't enough.

According to the feds, Fumo needed more - more cars, more help, a yacht, a bulldozer, $100-a-gallon house paints, more power tools, not to mention the 17 Oreck vacuum cleaners, all of which were for personal use and all of which were paid for - or so alleges the government - with OPM.

Other People's Money. A favorite Fumo acronym, according to the indictment.

The feds allege the OPM came either from Fumo's Senate accounts, so it was taxpayers' money, or from Citizens' Alliance, the charity Fumo created to provide services and redevelop his area of South Philadelphia.

What came to mind when reading the indictment was an expression used by my youngest when he was a toddler.

If you asked him how much he wanted of a favorite food, he'd reply: "I want too much! I want too much!"

In Fumo's defense - in fact, this is the defense he raised - despite the years they spent investigating him, the feds uncovered no serious crimes - no bribery, no extortion, no selling of his office.

No mortal sins, just venial ones, about 139 alleged venial sins, to be exact. In my dictionary, venial means "insignificant, excusable." It will be up to a federal jury to excuse Fumo and his codefendants. It will be up to über-lawyer Richard Sprague to defend him.

On Thursday, Sprague gave a sneak preview of that defense at a news conference. He said that the indictment was pure politics, an act of malice by an ambitious Republican U.S. attorney seeking to bag a prominent Democrat. He said it was filled with "falsities, half-truths . . . distortions."

Talking to people in political circles, there was doubt that Fumo could get off, so thick are the layers of alleged sins. Even if he does, these kinds of allegations can kill his political career. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, people will forgive a ruler for many things, but not if he takes what is theirs.

It is not seen simply as greed, but as abuse of power, born of arrogance.

Anyone who has ever met Vince Fumo will tell you that he is a man of considerable intelligence and charm. He has dominated the state Senate, even though he has been in the minority for most of his 28 years there, just as he has dominated the political landscape in Philadelphia. I cannot say he is loved, but he is respected.

The good he has done is immeasurable. He made things happen when no one else could. As citizens of this city, we owe him our thanks.

But, there's always been a touch of madness to him - an aggression mixed with passion - that seems to have heightened with age, or maybe with the isolation that comes with power.

The Vincent I knew early in his career played hard, but played by the rules. For the Vincent portrayed in this indictment, it seems, there were no rules.

He was the Prince. He could do what he wanted. He was blind to the dangers, until it was too late. Enter the FBI, stage left.

Tiki torches.

I laughed when I read that, but it could make you cry.


Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2714

or tferrick@phillynews.com

Tom Ferrick Jr. Inquirer Columnist
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