Power: Fumo, After the Fall

The most powerful politician in Philadelphia is heading to jail. In an exclusive interview, Vince Fumo talks about the agony of his trial, and why he still doesn’t know what he did that was so wrong.

“Asking people to screen out the media for five months, that was a tremendous burden,” says Karen White, a retired school psychologist from Bethlehem who was elected jury forewoman. “Asking people to shut down their communication, that was a tremendous burden on people for five months.” White, however, says she brought a blank slate to the courthouse: “I felt a heavy responsibility to be fair and hear all sides of the case.” What was remarkable about the jury, she says, was, “We were all respectful of each other and the system. That, I felt every single day.”

White says Fumo lost credibility with her when prosecutors played a tape of an interview he had done in early 2004 with Marty Moss-Coane, host of WHYY’s Radio Times. Moss-Coane inquired about reports in the Inquirer that PECO had donated $17 million to Fumo’s nonprofit, the Citizens’ Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, and asked specifically if he received any compensation from the nonprofit. “I don’t get any money from it,” Fumo responded. “I don’t get any benefits from it.”

On the witness stand, however, Fumo admitted that he had accepted $43,000 in power tools from Citizens’ Alliance, plus $20,000 in other goods. He explained that when Moss-Coane asked the question, he was thinking of “the kind of benefits you get with a salary,” not gifts like free power tools.

Asked if it was a crime to lie to a reporter, White says Moss-Coane is well respected; White’s been a loyal listener for years. “You don’t lie to Marty Moss-Coane, and it was clear that he did lie.”

Despite the judge’s instructions to tune out the press, jury forewoman White also says on the last day of the trial she heard from the media that the defense in the Fumo case was objecting to postings on Twitter and Facebook by an unnamed juror (including one post that said, “Stay tuned for a big announcement on Monday everyone!”). White was driving in from Bethlehem on the Schuylkill Expressway that morning, “listening to traffic reports on KYW, and they kept blasting that” — the story about the tweeting juror. When she got to the courthouse, the word was out. “We [jurors] all knew. Some of them heard it on KYW, or the night before, on the news. This was the lead story in the Philadelphia area.” [Editor’s note: On July 2nd, Fumo’s defense team asked the court for a new trial, based on reporting about the jurors for this story. Judge Buckwalter rejected the request.]

The tweeting juror, Eric Wuest, was hauled in for a hearing. He explained that he fell asleep on the couch, and when he awoke, the 10 o’clock news was on. “I knew that they were my postings,” Wuest testified. So he ran upstairs, hopped on a computer, and erased his postings. “I was in a sheer panic.”

The judge, however, overruled a defense motion to strike Wuest, saying he found no evidence that Wuest had been affected by any outside influence. The jury then announced a verdict. When White read the first “guilty” conviction, she looked over at Fumo, and saw that he had “this game face on.” But as she kept reading the guilty verdicts, she saw the confidence drain from that face.