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.

An iron gate and a pair of concrete eagles guard Vince Fumo’s brownstone mansion on Green Street. Hit the buzzer on the intercom, and after a short conversation with the owner, the gate slowly whirs open.

Fumo’s fabulously restored four-story mansion — with five bedrooms, 10 baths, seven fireplaces, Jacuzzi, wine cellar and underground shooting range — is on sale for $5 million, down from the original asking price two years ago of $7 million. But so far, nobody’s bidding.

“Not one bite,” Fumo says as he stands in the doorway under a flickering gas lantern.

After more than 30 years as a state senator, Fumo was convicted in March of 137 federal counts of fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and filing a false tax return. On this night, he’s just a few weeks away from being sentenced to 55 months in prison (and ordered to pay $2.4 million in fines and restitution). His uncertain fate could be why prospective buyers have been holding off. Castle Fumo may be guarded by eagles, but when it comes to prospective buyers, “Everybody’s sitting around like vultures, waiting for me to go down and then they’ll get it,” Fumo says. “They’re expecting a fire sale.”

Tonight, however, the only fire at the mansion is in the belly of the former senator’s Viking Professional range. He’s ready to broil a couple of T-bone steaks medium-rare. He’s also fussing with side dishes: roasted potatoes, spinach e olio, and a tomato salad with feta.  

Once a regular at La Veranda on Columbus Boulevard, Fumo finds solace these days in cooking at home, usually for family and friends. As with any Fumo project, the self-confessed obsessive-compulsive has thrown himself into it. He’s collected more than 160 cookbooks and frequently TiVo’s the chefs on the Food Network. He’s been interested in cooking since he was a kid helping his Irish mother make ravioli for his Italian father. She had a special juice glass reserved for a dough mold, Fumo recalls: “My job was pressing the fork around the edges of the ravioli. I enjoyed it.” His specialties include lentil soup, his mother’s Irish lamb stew, and her “phenomenal oyster stuffing for turkey.”

Carolyn Zinni, the woman Fumo became engaged to in early July, shares his passion for food. “We really love cooking. We’d rather do that than go out,” Fumo says. “It’s like dueling. Her whole family cooks. I make a good gravy, but Carolyn’s is better. She makes a straight marinara.”

Fumo’s coloring looks better than at his trial, where he was often ghostly pale; he’s also lost a few pounds, although it’s not a diet, but stress. Being on the receiving end of a massive federal indictment, he says while gnawing on his T-bone, was “kinda like when a doctor tells you you’ve got cancer. You can crawl in a hole and die, or you can fight it.”

To back up its indictment, the government presented at trial what one prosecutor described as an “avalanche of evidence” showing that Fumo had abused the power of his office, among other ways by using state employees and contractors to help with the goats and horses on his farm, oversee renovations at his mansion, even spy on his ex-girlfriend. Fumo was also convicted of raiding two nonprofits and helping himself to free bulldozers, power tools and yacht trips, and for not reporting the gifts as income. And he was convicted of obstructing justice by ordering subordinates to delete incriminating e-mails and wipe computers clean.

Still, the guy who got buried under that avalanche retains a sense of humor. One of the charges against Fumo was that he dispatched state workers to transport his monogrammed shirts to the Haverford estate of Dick Sprague, Fumo’s former lawyer, to be laundered and pressed.

“You know who the Governor told me picked up his shirts?” Fumo says with a laugh. “The state police.” (Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Governor Rendell, confirms it’s true. “The Governor doesn’t drive himself, the troopers always drive,” Ardo says. And the troopers “are the ones who run into the dry cleaners on occasion” to pick up the gubernatorial dry cleaning.)

After the prosecution in the Fumo case gave its opening statement at the trial, Fumo says, “You feel like shit, and you’re really depressed.” The five-month ordeal also laid bare Fumo’s dysfunctional family — the son-in-law who hates him, the estranged elder daughter who doesn’t speak to him, and that former girlfriend who’s upset that Fumo was spying on her.

It all took a toll on his health — he had a heart attack six months before the trial, collapsed in the courtroom during the trial itself, and coped with the stress by downing Xanax. The day he was convicted 137 times, found guilty on all charges, was like death.  “You feel like you went to your own funeral,” Fumo says. “It’s very similar. People come over and call.”

Three months after his conviction, Fumo still seems in denial over his fall. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he says. “I never sold my office. I never took a bribe. It doesn’t make any sense. … I never thought it was wrong to ask my secretaries and to ask people to do the things they did, especially on their own time.”  

But in his head, he replays his rocky moments on the witness stand that got him in trouble with jurors and his own lawyers. And every day, he awakes to the reality of jail time.

Vince Fumo observed his 66th birthday on May 8th, a day that began with him reporting to his probation officer. He’s been in therapy for 30 years, and takes medication to cope with a long-standing chemical imbalance and depression. He has a stent in his heart and two titanium rods in his back. He’s lost his job as a state legislator, his pension, and his law license. Now he’s facing the loss of his freedom.
Fumo’s mansion sits next door to the Convent of Divine Love. A frosted window separates Fumo from a grotto of the Blessed Mother and a convent of nuns who’ve taken vows of silence and engage in perpetual worship. Like the nuns outside his window, Fumo, a former Catholic schoolteacher, has turned to prayer.

“You pray, and you hope for fairness,” he says. “And you hope for mercy.”

 

THE FEUDING FUMO clan wasn’t the only family story that played out in Courtroom 17A. The strangers who met on the jury that decided Vince Fumo’s fate also developed strong bonds. Like Fumo, the 10 women and two men on the jury are still coming to terms with their experiences.  

“When you spend five months with people, you become like an extended family,” says juror Kimm Guckin, sitting on her front porch in Levittown and cradling the granddaughter born shortly after the trial. “We went through a lot together.”

The group threw a baby shower for a pregnant juror who gave birth to a baby boy after the trial. They brought in cakes to fete each others’ birthdays. They celebrated Thanksgiving together, had a Pollyanna for Christmas, and toasted the New Year. And when it came to the evidence they heard at the trial, they were in agreement. “We were all on the same page,” Guckin says. That turned out to be bad news for Vince Fumo.

“You don’t take advantage of who you are. And you’re not entitled to other people’s money,” Guckin says, using the phrase that Fumo and his associates adopted as their M.O. It was a challenge, however, to follow Judge Ronald Buckwalter’s instructions not to discuss the case with anyone and to ignore the media. “The hardest thing was on the train,” Guckin says. “People were talking about it and I would move my seat.”

“I tried to stay open-minded all the time,” says Joanne Pinkston, who as Juror No. 1 sat closest to the witness stand, and who became known as “the tissue lady” for dispensing Kleenex to sobbing witnesses. “Okay, maybe he did something good. But the more he said on the stand,” she recalls thinking, “‘You’re hanging yourself, buddy.’” The mountain of prosecution evidence “was so clear.”

But on Fridays, when court wasn’t in session, Pinkston showed up at her job as a maintenance administrator at Verizon. Co-workers stopped by and talked about things in the media, such as Fumo’s prior 1980 conviction, subsequently overturned by a judge, for hiring ghost employees. Judge Buckwalter repeatedly turned down prosecution requests to tell the jury about that prior conviction. But Pinkston found out anyway, even though she held up her hands and told co-workers: Please don’t talk to me, I can’t discuss the case. Co-workers also told her that John Carter, former president of the Independence Seaport Museum, and the guy who gave Fumo permission to take free yacht trips, was doing time for fraud. The judge didn’t want the jury to know about Carter, either.

“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.
WHEN VINCE FUMO replays the trial, he’s back on the witness stand, being cross-examined by prosecutor John Pease. Pease pounds away at the practice of Fumo employees routinely doing personal and political favors for the boss during office hours at Fumo’s headquaters on Tasker Street. The discussion bogs down on the finer points of state Ethics Commission rulings, and whether an employee doing campaign work in the basement of Fumo’s district office, where constituent work is done, should have gone upstairs to the second floor, where a computer and phone were earmarked for campaign work, to do the boss a favor.

Fumo: “Oh, I probably should have told her to go to the second floor, rather than do it in the basement, yes.”

Pease: “Because it’s a violation of state law for you to have your employee using state facilities, state equipment, to work on campaigns, correct?”

Fumo: “It is, it is. It’s also a violation to spit on the sidewalk, although I don’t know that it’s enforced.”  

“That was a little flippant,” Fumo now concedes. During a break at the trial, Fumo’s lawyer, Dennis Cogan, was overheard screaming at Fumo in a back room. It got so loud, a court employee showed up to tell them to pipe down. “He killed me,” Fumo says of Cogan.

So did jurors. When Fumo made that crack, juror Greg Brecker says, “All the money he was paying Cogan … he might as well have flushed it down the toilet.”

THE REST OF his life may be going to hell, but Vince Fumo is happy with his love life. “Carolyn’s been terrific,” he says about the woman he’s been with for the past two years. “She’s soft and sweet and just a wonderful person.”

Zinni’s a 51-year-old single mother of three sons who looks at least a decade younger and owns a family dress shop in Springfield. She first saw Fumo on Passyunk Avenue more than a decade ago at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. “He was leading a crowd singing ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ … waving his hands like a maestro,” she says.

Fumo first saw Zinni at a dinner in Atlantic City, when she was dating Philadelphia City Councilman Frank DiCicco, a Fumo ally. He thought she was gorgeous, and years after DiCicco and Zinni were no longer dating, he spoke with DiCicco, who called her to see if she would go out with Fumo.     

“I think we both hit it at the right time,” Fumo says of the relationship. He was up-front about his legal problems. “He didn’t hold back; he told me what was going on,” Zinni remembers. “He’s honorable, and I’m very much attracted to that. He’s reckless with his honesty. He tells me too much information. … He’s a man of his word, and he’s very open. His openness has been mistaken for arrogance.”
Every Monday, when her shop was closed, Zinni visited the courthouse, where she was often photographed but never spoke. The hardest part of watching the trial, she says, was seeing “how misunderstood he was.”

Zinni just lost her father, Louis, a tailor, who died on May 9th, the day after Fumo’s 66th birthday. Now she’s praying for Vince. Whatever happens, she says it won’t be the end of the world: “He’ll take it like a man, and I will stand by him 100 percent. I love him dearly. … He’s the most charming man that I ever knew, except for my daddy.”

 

A FEW DAYS after he broiled T-bones, Vince Fumo sets some eggs to boil on his Viking range, then forgets about them. His housekeeper sticks her head in the study to tell Fumo not to worry; she turned off the stove.

Nicole Barrett is the same housekeeper who, at the trial, testified against Fumo under a grant of immunity. Barrett got jammed up by the feds for taking cash without paying taxes. She told jurors about Fumo’s love of Oreck vacuum cleaners. (Citizens’ Alliance purchased 19, including four stationed at Fumo’s mansion, one on every floor.)

But Fumo doesn’t hold a grudge against her; Barrett still cleans his house. “She’s a nice girl,” he shrugs. “She needs the money.”

 A piercing bark invades Fumo’s kitchen. It’s the beagle on the other side of Fumo’s mansion. Fumo’s son-in-law testified that the barking beagle drove Fumo so crazy, he wanted to poison the dog. (Fumo denied it.) That damn beagle’s still out there yapping.

Fumo laughs. He didn’t get much sleep the night before. For dinner, he made a fresh tomato sauce in a big pan, simmered with olive oil and garlic. His guests at the meal included Carolyn, son Vincent Jr., and Fumo’s new granddaughter, Lila Rose.

After dinner, Fumo’s granddaughter started crying and wouldn’t stop, so Carolyn took the baby for a long stroll around the neighborhood. That quieted Lila Rose, but everybody didn’t get to bed until 11:30. Lila Rose woke them all up at 3 a.m. — all except Fumo. So in the morning, “I had to change her diaper and give her a bottle,” Fumo says. “I hadn’t changed a diaper in years.”

He takes his guest downstairs to show off his underground shooting range. It’s a 40-foot-long concrete cavern with hanging targets. The back of the range is a steel-plated trap, so that bullets bounce around and fall harmlessly. Fumo, a gun nut, once owned a collection of more than 100 firearms, including some vintage tommy guns. But his days as a big shot are over. After the indictment, the accused felon voluntarily surrendered all his firearms to gun dealers. Now that he’s convicted, he says, “I can’t even own a gun.”  

 

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  • Randy

    I am sure his Mom and Dad are proud. Another crooked (I am bigger then Life) Politician