Today In Corruption: Philadelphia’s $780,540 Secret

Plus: Vince Fumo's new sentence and Cherelle Parker's disappearing DUI

It’s hard enough to have much faith in Philadelphia’s political system these days. But when judges appear to pull punches, then all is lost.

Consider the actions of judges in three high-profile cases: the handling of a state representative’s alleged drunk driving; state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille’s latest maneuver in the Family Court affair; and the re-sentencing of former state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.

For those who missed it, Cherelle Parker is a state representative from Northwest Philadelphia who had key evidence in her drunk-driving case tossed out last week by Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden. Parker, who has had an undistinguished career up until now, is amiable and well-connected.

She was a top aide to City Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, the city’s reigning DROP queen. Tasco is part of the so-called Northwest Alliance, a coalition of city Democrats led by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and State Rep. Dwight Evans. As luck would have it, Judge Hayden used to be the chief counsel for Fattah. Small world.

Hayden presided over Parker’s non-jury trial in which prosecutors presented the following evidence: She was pulled over after midnight in April when police spotted her car traveling the wrong way down a one-way street in Germantown. The officers said Parker’s eyes were glassy, she smelled of alcohol, was unsteady on her feet, and her speech was slowed.

One officer testified that Parker told him she drank two chocolate martinis and two beers. A Breathalyzer test found her blood-alcohol level was .16, or twice the legal limit.

Parker denied driving the wrong way and testified she only had one martini. Judge Hayden sided with Parker and called the testimony of one of the officers “less than truthful.”

To borrow from John McEnroe: Are you kidding me? Or as state Deputy Attorney General Marc Costanzo, a longtime Philly resident who handled the case, said: “I understand how things go around here.”

A stunning claim by a prosecutor.

The Family Court matter is another “only-in-Philly” tale. A quick recap: Castille paid an attorney and occasional golf partner millions of dollars in fees to spearhead construction of a new Family Court building. The attorney later teamed up with the developer of the project, essentially representing both sides of the deal. Castille says he wasn’t aware of the duel arrangement; the lawyer says it was widely known. Either way Castille looks like a fool.

After the deal blew up, Castille hired his former deputy in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, William Chadwick, to detail what went wrong. I spoke with Chadwick after he was hired and asked how someone who once worked for Castille could conduct an impartial investigation.

Chadwick made it clear the report would be done without fear or favor because his integrity was at stake. He also promised the report would be made public. Oops. The report remains secret and was used instead to build a lawsuit against the attorney turned co-developer. Apparently, some promises are made to be broken.

For his efforts, Chadwick was paid $780,540 for the report. Good work if you can get it. But it seems like a case of throwing more good taxpayers’ money after bad. The report should at least be made public so taxpayers can see what they paid for.

In the Fumo case, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter will take a second crack today at sentencing the former state senator who was convicted in 2009 of 137 fraud-related counts. Buckwalter cut Fumo a big break the first time by departing from the guidelines and issuing a sentence of 55 months in prison.

Prosecutors appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered Buckwalter to resentence Fumo. Prosecutors want the judge to impose a sentence of at least 15 years. For good measure, the prosecutors released a ream of inflammatory emails Fumo sent from prison that they contend show the once-powerful pol lacks remorse.

No doubt Buckwalter gave Fumo a sweetheart sentence the first time. But the prosecutors have overplayed their hand with the emails, which should not impact Fumo’s sentence. It’s not a crime to write angry missives from prison. Such piling on only reinforces Buckwalter’s belief that prosecutors hyped the magnitude of Fumo’s crimes.

As a result, Buckwalter may stick with his original sentence. That may well be the proper ruling at this point. But in Philadelphia it’s hard to know what justice is anymore.