Colleagues of state Sen. Lawrence M. Farnese Jr. (D-First Dist.) are rallying to his side after the lawmaker was accused of bribery and other crimes in a federal indictment handed down last week.
Farnese serves as ward leader for the Eighth Ward Democratic Committee. The ward is a political subdivision, largely in Center City west of Broad. It serves as a conduit to party leadership, and it’s a source of information during campaigns and elections.
The ward is composed of committeepeople elected by their neighbors and who then elect a ward leader every four years.
In 2011, Farnese allegedly bribed Eighth Ward committeeperson Ellen Chapman to help ensure his election as ward leader. Farnese allegedly diverted $6,000 in campaign funds to help pay the college tuition of Chapman’s daughter.
In a 12-page indictment, Farnese and Chapman are charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and related offenses.
Critics of the indictment call it baseless. Some say Farnese perhaps could face a civil fine for alleged misuse of campaign funds, but not criminal charges.
Peter Carr, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice, had no comment for this story.
Eighth Ward committeeperson Babette Josephs expressed support for Farnese.
“I have spoken to a number of seasoned criminal defense attorneys, and not one can figure out what the federal crime is,” Josephs told PGN. “Bribery does not fit these facts. I think making this kind of donation from a campaign account is maybe not the most political action a campaign might make. But I don’t see any crime. The senator has been a conscientious elected official and ward leader. He doesn’t deserve this harassment.”
Josephs, a former state representative, said Farnese has been a strong advocate for a new probe of the Nizah Morris incident. Morris was a trans woman found in the Eighth Ward in 2002 with a fatal head wound, shortly after a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police.
“As a member of the Justice for Nizah committee, I’m very grateful that Sen. Farnese has demonstrated strong advocacy for a proper investigation of Nizah’s homicide,” Josephs added.
Farnese is also the co-prime sponsor of the Senate version of the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Charles P. Goodwin, another Eighth Ward committeeperson, blasted the indictment.
“These allegations are unbelievable,” Goodwin said. “I’ve known Larry to be absurdly careful to make sure what he’s doing is legal with his campaign and public money — down to nickel-and-dime expenses. Larry wouldn’t do something he knew to be illegal.”
Goodwin added: “At one ward meeting when he was ward leader, Larry brought a tray of soft pretzels for the committee. Are they going to indict him for that? For the record, I didn’t eat one and it didn’t influence me to vote for or against something.”
Goodwin contended prosecutors appear to be overreaching.
“This indictment is frightening. It’s about the government regulating how private political groups choose their leadership. The Eighth Ward Democratic Committee is an unincorporated association of individuals coming together for a political purpose — just like ACT UP, Black Lives Matter or the Tea Party. Under the First Amendment, the government should not control how these groups pick their leaders.”
Goodwin also said the indictment is devoid of facts to back up its accusations.
“There are no facts in the indictment saying that either Larry or Ellen thought there was an express deal to trade a vote for help with college tuition. Without that, there just isn’t any crime. Doing a favor for a constituent because you would like their support can’t be a crime. If it was, every time a councilman got a pot hole filled at a constituent’s request, that would be a crime. Sure, the councilman expects support. Sure, the constituent expects service and will reward the councilman with support. To make it a crime, there has to be an express quid pro quo. For example, ‘I’ll get the pot hole fixed if you promise to support me.’ Otherwise, it’s just responsive government.
Eighth Ward committeeperson Avi D. Eden is a close friend of Farnese.
“Those of us who know Larry and see the way he runs the ward — it’s completely open,” Eden told PGN. “Committeepeople have every right to disagree with him. He doesn’t run the ward as though he were a power-hungry ward leader. So the idea he would ever need to bribe a constituent is ludicrous. I know Larry well. I know he could only give that money with a good motive and a pure heart. He would never give money in exchange for anything. He would do it simply because he thought it was the right thing to do for a constituent.”