The questions should have shaken the state political system's foundations.
Why did Vince Fumo need the $256,000 in "political campaign contributions" that was on hand in his "Fumo for Senate" political action committee coffers in 2011?
Was the PAC money to be spent on an election campaign to return him to the state Senate while he was in the middle of a 55-month stretch at a federal prison in Kentucky? And how did Fumo plan to nearly triple that $256,000 in the PAC while still behind bars, as reported in news stories over the past week?
"You were going to raise a few hundred [thousand] by the time I got home, remember?" Fumo is quoted as saying in an email letter from prison, as revealed in court proceedings. "There has to be [at least] $750,000 in there by the time I get out! OK?" he said in another.
Fumo had represented Philadelphia in the Senate, and while that city is famous for sending crooks to Harrisburg, might it not be difficult to win an election right after doing a prison term on a corruption beef?
If you are waiting for me to answer those questions, I can't. They do, however, illustrate why, for years, I always have put quote marks around the term "political campaign contributions," or I have preceded that term with "so-called," or sometimes I go all the way and do both.
In Pennsylvania, it's obvious that "political campaign contributions" are not necessarily for any legitimate electoral purpose; they are personal payoffs for goals that rarely serve the best interests of the public.
In the case of Fumo's PAC, that was made clear over the last few days in news accounts of his nasty legal battle with a former close friend and ally, New Jersey restaurant figure Andrew Cosenza, whom Fumo made chairman of the PAC.
From prison, Fumo filed a lawsuit accusing Cosenza of misappropriating money from the PAC, which, instead of having its $256,000 grow to $750,000, now has a grand total of $4,720.50. The lawsuit says Cosenza and his brother "engaged in a scheme to take money from the campaign for their own personal use and benefit."
In a new disclosure, Cosenza admits he was paid $253,000 by the PAC in 2011 as a "political consultant." That came with a claim by Cosenza that Fumo himself tried to use PAC money to pay for personal things.
Cosenza said in court last week that Fumo wanted to take back control of the PAC "to be utilized for his [Fumo's] own personal purposes as opposed to any of the lawfully declared purposes of the PAC." He said Fumo wanted the money to pay off his lawyers' fees in the criminal case and "for the payment of forfeitures and restitution debts to the federal government."
If either of these guys is right, what does it have to do with the proper use of PAC money? Pennsylvania law says such money must be used only for "the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election."
I'll digress a moment to point out that I think Fumo's downfall is a tragedy. Despite his background (he was the protégé of the Legislature's biggest crook, the late Sen. Henry "Buddy" Cianfrani, also of Philadelphia), I found much to admire in Fumo.
He actually supported the Bill of Rights (all of it, including the Second Amendment, which is unusual for an urban Democrat) and favored the merit selection of judges, although he was a lawyer subject to the whims of politically contaminated judges.
He was one of the Legislature's most intelligent members (he belonged to Mensa) and, as I once wrote, "Fumo had the demeanor of an elegant aristocrat … a pragmatist who could deal with both sides of the political aisle. … He was invariably … the most articulate person in the room … and was polite and gracious, even if confronted by an adversarial journalist."
In any case, Fumo was convicted on 137 counts of misusing the public's money to pay for construction on his Philadelphia mansion and for work on his farm near Harrisburg, among other things, and recently was released to complete his term under house arrest in his mansion.
Temptations for politicians to serve wealthy special interests increased, as I noted Friday, because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that took the lid off "political campaign contributions." Even so, reforms are possible, especially if directed at recipients, not benefactors.
Pennsylvania Common Cause, for example, advocates a ban on no-bid contracts, commonly awarded in "pay to play" schemes, and current government contractors could be banned from making donations to candidates for offices overseeing their contracts. Also, stronger sanctions could apply to candidates using campaign funds for personal expenses.
A key reform, said Barry Kauffman, director of the state Common Cause, would be to liquidate campaign accounts after a campaign is over, with the money returned to donors or given to the public. Why should a politician who is not running for anything need an enormous reserve of "political campaign contributions?"
Until the public starts demanding such reforms, until voters stop voting for bums who serve wealthy special interests and no one else, the problem will only get worse.
Vince Fumo has performed a valuable public service by showing us how corrupt the system has become.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.