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?

TWENTY YEARS AGO, a lot of people probably felt like they were being targeted by the Inquirer. Under the leadership of legendary editor Gene Roberts, the paper was big, smart and aggressive — a perennial Pulitzer winner that was considered one of the finest newspapers in the country. Today, after two decades of downsizing and belt-tightening forced on it by its parent, Knight Ridder, it’s a paper that does many things poorly. It is shockingly bad at long-form narrative stories, profiles, and pretty much anything attempting to be entertaining or funny. But the paper’s editors still believe passionately in investigative journalism — in hard-hitting accountability stories. It is perhaps the one legacy from the Roberts era. “The coin of the realm,” one staffer calls it, a value system that allows reporters precious time, space and resources to tackle work that even smells like an investigation.

The current Fumo obsession began a little more than two years ago, when Inquirer business reporter Miriam Hill discovered one humdinger of an accounting anomaly: An inconspicuous nonprofit in South Philly known as Citizens Alliance for a Better Neighborhood had somehow become one of the richest charitable organizations in the city. At the time, according to its publicly available tax filings, the group claimed to have $24 million in the bank, a staggering $11 million of which had come in from a single donor during the previous year.

 In the coming weeks and months, Citizens Alliance would often be referred to as a “little-known” organization, yet it was hardly a cloak-and-dagger operation. It had been founded by Fumo and Councilman Frank DiCicco in 1991 to clean up streets, storefronts and abandoned properties, and the group’s volunteers could often be seen out and about in South Philly, usually wearing Citizens Alliance jackets. Attention from the media was also nothing new. A couple of years before, the City Paper had published several stories on the nonprofit, including a piece about $5.6 million in anonymous donations to the group in 1999.

By the time the Inquirer weighed in, in fact, Citizens Alliance’s riches had long been the topic of neighborhood speculation, and plenty of people at the Inky (as well as other media) had heard rumors of PECO’s connection to the money. Still, it wasn’t until a week after Hill’s story hit the street that PECO decided to come clean — sort of. The company admitted it had given money to Citizens Alliance, but it refused to say how much — or what it was for.

Though Hill had gotten the goods on the donation, the story would soon be taken over by Craig McCoy and Mario Cattabiani, two of the paper’s most relentless staffers. Cattabiani, based in Harrisburg, had joined the Inquirer a year before, fresh from covering the governor’s race for the Allentown Morning Call. At the Capitol, he was known to be smart and tenacious, though he possessed a flare for the dramatic. “They slashed funding for libraries and gutted drug-rehab programs,” he wrote in one story about the legislature. “Then, after passing a bare-bones state budget this spring, most of them drove away in cars leased at taxpayer expense, never giving a thought to trimming one of Harrisburg’s most-favored and costly perks.”

Cue ominous music.