State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's lawyer attacked the U.S. attorney's motives yesterday and called the 139 charges against his client nothing more than a malicious effort by the Bush administration to drive powerful Democrats from office.
"This is an indictment born of political ambition," lawyer Richard A. Sprague told reporters. "It reeks of malice."
Sprague described U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan, who was appointed by President Bush, as a political operative who loaded Fumo's indictment with "twists and distortions, venal and salacious entries, deliberate statements out of context."
Meehan's spokesman called Sprague's comments "inaccurate and regrettable."
Sprague's harsh words came on the same day that Fumo resigned from an influential post: a seat on the Delaware River Port Authority, which runs the PATCO line and regional bridges.
Fumo is charged with fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice on a grand scale - using state Senate staff and funds from a neighborhood charity to support an opulent lifestyle and then orchestrating a cover-up after the FBI started asking questions.
In all, prosecutors say Fumo (D., Phila.) misused more than $2 million in public money and funds from the charity he helped create, Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. Fumo's influence gained the charity $30 million from Peco Energy, the DRPA, and state grants.
Fumo, whose personal worth exceeds $20 million, is accused of using the charity's money to pay for political polls, cars, power tools, farm equipment, personal errands and shopping sprees.
Among the most sensational allegations is that Fumo used people on the Senate payroll to clean his house and spy on ex-girlfriends and political opponents.
If convicted, Fumo likely faces two to four years in prison, and perhaps as many as 10 years.
Sprague, one of the city's most prominent lawyers, convened yesterday's news conference at his Rittenhouse Square law office a day after his client, one of the most powerful politicians in Pennsylvania, pleaded not guilty.
Sprague offered a glimpse into Fumo's defense against the obstruction-of-justice charges - that the senator directed a cover-up by ordering aides to destroy e-mails after he learned of the FBI investigation.
Fumo did nothing wrong, Sprague said. The senator's office simply followed a longstanding "document retention" policy that called for the office to routinely clear computers of old e-mails.
"Mr. Meehan knows that when Citizens' Alliance was under investigation, Sen. Fumo went and sought advice from a lawyer - not me - on whether he had to change his policy. . . . That lawyer told Sen. Fumo, 'No, you don't have to change your policy because you haven't been subpoenaed. . . .' "
The 81-year-old lawyer, a former prosecutor who rarely holds news conferences, spoke for 75 minutes yesterday but refused to answer specific questions about Fumo's spending and use of staff.
Instead, he mostly mocked Meehan and his case:
On using Senate workers for personal tasks:
". . . Ask yourself: What is to prevent someone who is devoted, dedicated to their boss, Vince Fumo, to knock themselves out and, beyond their Senate time, do activities that make his time more efficient and make him more effective as a state senator?"
On using Senate workers for political tasks:
"How is it that Vince was able, as everybody concedes, to be the most effective senator Philadelphia has ever had? By just sitting in his office, or by doing political activity, anywhere, everywhere?"
On Meehan's post-indictment news conference:
"Mr. Meehan said that Sen. Fumo crossed the line. He did this, he did that. . . . Mr. Meehan talks as though Sen. Fumo has been convicted. That kind of presentation is an outrage."
On the size of the 267-page indictment:
"How do you make headlines as a prosecutor? I know all the tricks of the trade. . . . When you have a weak case, throw in the kitchen sink. Throw everything you possibly can in the indictment. Maybe something will stick."
On whether the Bush administration specifically targeted Fumo:
"Hopefully, they are . . . using the FBI to get Osama bin Laden and not Vince Fumo, but what I am saying is that they, from on high, do have a policy of using local U.S. attorneys to try to get effective Democrats."
Because of the scope of the case, Sprague said, he expects the trial won't begin for a year. He said the government has interviewed more than 1,000 people and plans to call 100 to 200 witnesses at trial.
"I am going to stick with this case and try this case," Sprague said. "I am 81 years young."
Meanwhile, Fumo yesterday continued to shed some of his clout in the state and the region - at least temporarily.
He stepped down from the DRPA, where he was long a power who exerted control over the agency's money and jobs. Fumo helped direct about $10 million from DRPA to Citizens' Alliance.
"I regret, due to the lack of time and energy, to be able to serve on the DRPA board," Fumo wrote in a letter to Auditor General Jack Wagner, who appointed Fumo.
Fumo yesterday also pulled his name from consideration as vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, the state's wealthy college-loan agency. But he'll remain on the board.
The indictment has already hit Fumo in his pocketbook: When he stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee on Monday, Fumo also lost his $98,691 salary as a Senate leader.
Fumo, who has served for 29 years, now makes as much as a freshman senator - $73,614.
For the latest news, text of the indictment, and more coverage, go to philly.comEndText