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?

CATTABIANI AND FUMO were well acquainted. Just a couple of weeks before Hill’s first story about PECO, in fact, Cattabiani had managed to earn Fumo’s ire in the course of reporting a story about legislative leadership perks. Over the previous year, Fumo had spent $73,000 in state money at La Veranda restaurant in Philadelphia, a fact that would be front and center in Cattabiani’s piece, and when the reporter approached Fumo outside the Capitol building in Harrisburg, the Senator let it be known how important he considered the topic: “Mario, you’re writing for a real paper now,” Fumo yelled. “You can write about some real news, not this stupid shit.”

McCoy could be, if anything, even more dogged. A longtime Inky veteran, he is highly respected and well-liked in the newsroom, a considerable feat among a professionally cantankerous staff. Some speculate that this is because in a business populated with complete dorks, he smokes and has a well-guarded but charmingly crass sense of humor. Others think it’s because he once worked as the paper’s city editor before realizing that he completely hated the job. In any event, eight years ago he went back to writing, joining the paper’s investigative unit, where he has authored some of the Inquirer’s most controversial and high-profile projects: a series on the police department’s bogus rape statistics, coverage of the City Hall corruption probe and the archdiocese’s handling of sexually abusive priests. Several years ago, he was part of a team that wrote a series of stories on Chestnut Hill real estate mogul Richard Snowden’s controversial use of easements in amassing his holdings. For nine months, according to one source, Snowden’s attorneys sent letters to the paper threatening libel action. McCoy went ahead with the stories.

In December 2003, not long after taking over the PECO story, Cattabiani and McCoy came up with their first scoop. For weeks the company had refused to give details about its donations to Citizens Alliance, but the duo had discovered that a provision in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules required that major utilities itemize charitable contributions. The company soon turned over the information, which allowed McCoy and Cattabiani to detail a total of $17 million in PECO donations to Citizens Alliance over the previous five years. The bulk of the money — $13 million — had come as a result of 1998 negations between PECO and consumer groups aligned with Fumo that had sued the utility during the march toward deregulation. The coalition had sued the utility over the terms under which it would open the local electricity market for competition.

After those initial revelations, the Inky shifted into overdrive, as if making up for lost time. Over the next three months, it would publish more than 20 articles about the PECO arrangement — about other politicians’ criticism of the deal, about Fumo’s defense. Many of the stories focused on the FBI’s investigation of Fumo, which had begun in January 2004, on the heels of the Inquirer’s coverage. Several of the pieces were exemplary journalism — comprehensive, detailed, revealing looks at an important and compelling public figure: a front-page story about Fumo’s connection to a fund controlled by the Delaware River Port Authority, a piece detailing Fumo’s personal connection to the Independence Seaport Museum’s yacht. Others were not. In February, for example, after a minor screw-up with Fumo’s nominating petitions for the Democratic primary — someone else had signed his name on the papers, the validity of which was then challenged by Fumo’s opponent — Cattabiani wrote an 800-word story dissecting the dust-up. It appeared on the front of the local section, and included a quote from a former professor who said the signature gaffe showed “a certain hubris that comes with power.” Even more conspicuous was a piece the paper had written the month before, a front-page, 2,200-word story about the Delaware Valley Regional Economic Development Fund, a small nonprofit that receives about $1.7 million a year thanks to a provision in the 1998 settlement that Fumo negotiated. The fund is governed by a board stocked with people closely tied to the Senator. Nobody could argue that the fund wasn’t newsworthy. It was, which is why the paper had written a virtually identical story about its financing in 1999.

By this point, the zone-flooding coverage had caused its share of eye-rolling even in the Inquirer newsroom. “I don’t think anybody would say it isn’t worthy to write about Fumo,” says one reporter. “It’s just that some of it seemed so over-the-top, so naïve.” Even the most incremental updates were given a breathless quality. “I would open the Inquirer and see a Fumo story with a paragraph that was quote-unquote ‘news,’ and then another eight column inches of recycled stuff,” says John Hawkins, who, as a former Fumo staffer, isn’t exactly impartial. “That, to me, is embarrassing for the paper.”

Amanda Bennett says decisions on what runs where in the paper are made by a rotating group of editors, with the final arbiter usually being managing editor Anne Gordon, with input from Bennett. But that, according to reporters at the paper, is part of the problem. Many of the editors are either relatively new — like Bennett — or aren’t hyperinformed about local politics. “If you only know enough to know that Fumo looks slimy, and that he has a reputation for being slimy, you think this is a huge story,” says one reporter.