All the Vince That’s Fit to Print

In the past two years, the Inquirer has published nearly 300 pieces about State Senator Vince Fumo. Is it aggressive reporting—or a vendetta?

ON A MUGGY Friday morning in July, the shareholders of First Penn Bank opened one of the weirder annual meetings in the
company’s 82-year history.

First Penn isn’t a big operation. Founded as the Fumo Building & Loan in South Philly during the 1920s — when Italians had a tough time getting homes financed by more established institutions — the bank today operates 13 branches and controls $500 million in assets. Regional giant Commerce Bank, by comparison, operates 340 branches, with $36 billion in assets.

Even so, six weeks earlier, First Penn had received the sort of scrutiny normally awarded Supreme Court nominees or suspicious-looking moles. In mid-May, the Philadelphia Inquirer had published a series of front-page articles about the company that the paper said detailed “a saga of mergers, dramatic growth, angry lawsuits, a falling-out of millionaires, and politicians’ profits that went undisclosed.” Yet anyone expecting a titillating read — Barbarians at the Gate meets Lady Chatterley’s Lover, perhaps — was bound to be disappointed. Most of the stories focused on one individual: the notorious 62-year-old state senator who also happens to be chairman of the company and grandson of its founder — ­Vincent J. Fumo, a man whom the bank’s board had, in the paper’s words, served “especially well.”

That much was certainly true. In 2004 alone, the bank had awarded Fumo more than $700,000 in compensation; it had also provided him with a Mercedes-Benz and $950,000 in reduced-rate loans. In the event that the bank was sold or taken over, moreover, Fumo would receive a “golden parachute” worth more than $4 million.

There had only been one thing missing from the stories about Fumo’s bank: Fumo. Neither he nor anyone else involved with the company had talked to the paper.

Now, six weeks later, the three people involved in reporting and writing the Inquirer series — Mario Cattabiani, Craig McCoy and Jennifer Lin — were doing a follow-up. This time, they were determined to get some comments, and they hit on an ingenious plan to assure access to company officers. Each of the reporters bought a small quantity of stock in First Penn’s parent company, automatically entitling them to attend the annual meeting at the Crowne Plaza in Center City.

Even Fumo, however grudgingly, had to admire their pluck. Of course, by then there wasn’t any place Fumo didn’t expect to see Inquirer reporters — especially Cattabiani and McCoy. For months, it seemed, he couldn’t scratch his nose without it showing up in the paper. Like the cops or the courts or the Eagles, he had become, he believed, one of the paper’s beats.

At least he could have some fun with it. And so that morning, after he called the meeting to order and asked for a moment of silence to honor former First Penn board member Stephen Marcus, who had just died, he told the crowd he wanted to welcome the bank’s newest shareholders. That’s when he introduced his daughter Allie — and the three reporters. It was, considering the setting, about as much of an up yours as he could get away with. “I just about fell out of my chair,” says one attendee.

Fumo didn’t stay at the meeting for long. Marcus’s funeral was scheduled for that morning, and Fumo was planning to attend. On his way out, the reporters approached him to ask some questions. He brushed them off. “But for a minute,” he says, “I actually thought they might show up at the funeral.”