There is a strong likelihood that state Sen. Vince Fumo may soon be indicted by a federal grand jury.

Fumo received a so-called "target letter" from prosecutors last summer, the Inquirer reported yesterday.

Targets are people on whom prosecutors have gathered "substantial evidence" linking them to criminal conduct and who are "putative defendants," the U.S. attorney's manual says.

People familiar with the process say those who get target letters can expect to be charged.

"It's 95-99 percent certain that person will be indicted," said Carmen Nasuti, a defense attorney who was formerly deputy chief of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office here.

"If you get a target letter and you're not indicted, it's very rare. It's like hen's teeth," Nasuti said.

Howard Bruce Klein, a defense attorney and former chief of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office here in the 1980s, said it's "highly likely" that the recipient of a target letter will be charged.

"It's bad news," added Will Spade, a criminal-defense attorney and former city prosecutor.

Klein, who pegged the likelihood of indictment at closer to 90 percent, cautioned that prosecutors often use target letters for strategic purposes, say, to get a potential defendant to cooperate with investigators.

A former federal prosecutor now in private practice said he had a client who received a target letter three years ago about pending legal matters and who has not yet been charged with a crime.

But others doubt that's the case with Fumo, who has denied wrongdoing and who predicted last March at a Harrisburg press luncheon that the probe would "go nowhere."

A former federal prosecutor said that because Fumo is an entrenched politician, prosecutors wouldn't send him a target letter simply as a bluff.

"They have probably reflected on this very carefully," said the former prosecutor, now in private practice.

The indictment is expected soon because the term of the federal grand jury that has been investigating Fumo and his relationship to a South Philadelphia charity expires next month.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment on whether or not Fumo received a target letter. Mark B. Sheppard, a lawyer for Fumo, did not return this reporter's phone calls.

The federal probe of Fumo dates back to 2003 and centers on his relationship with the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit with ties to the senator that was formed to spiff up neighborhoods in South Philadelphia.

The feds have been looking into whether and to what extent Fumo may have used his official position to extort payments for the nonprofit from Peco Energy and the Delaware River Port Authority and whether he benefitted, politically or personally, from expenditures made by the nonprofit.

Two former state Senate computer aides who worked for Fumo were indicted in June on charges that they deleted and destroyed e-mails sent to and from Fumo in order to hide them from the FBI.

The indictment refers to e-mails from the two ex-aides, Leonard Luchko and Mark Eister, that suggest they received instructions to destroy the e-mails directly from Fumo himself. Both men pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and obstruction charges, and are scheduled to stand trial in May.

Fumo is not the only person who has received a target letter in connection with the probe.

The Daily News reported last January that Ruth Arnao, a former deputy chief of staff to Fumo and executive director of Citizens Alliance, had also been sent a target letter by prosecutors.

Arnao resigned as the organization's executive director last summer. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing. *