Appeals court orders new sentencings for Fumo, Arnao

Brian Bowling
| Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011

Former state Sen. Vincent Fumo could spend a lot more time in prison as a result of a federal appeals court ruling Tuesday, two legal experts said.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Fumo's political corruption conviction and agreed with prosecutors, 2-1, that the trial judge made a series of errors in determining Fumo's sentence. The court vacated that penalty and ordered U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter to sentence Fumo again.

Buckwalter sentenced the Philadelphia Democrat in July 2010 to four years and seven months after a Philadelphia federal jury convicted Fumo on 137 counts of fraud, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. Fumo, 68, is scheduled for release from a federal prison in Ashland, Ky., in August 2013.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence in excess of 20 years for Fumo, a legendary power broker in Pennsylvania politics.

"We are pleased with the decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and will prepare for the next step in the process," said Zane David Memeger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Peter Goldberger, Fumo's appeals lawyer, said he has to talk with Fumo before deciding whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The jury convicted Ruth Arnao, a former Fumo staff member, on 45 counts of fraud, tax evasion and obstruction of justice. Buckwalter sentenced Arnao to one year and one day in prison. The appeals court also vacated that sentence and ordered the judge to reconsider the numerous breaks he gave Arnao.

The appeals court ruling doesn't require Buckwalter to hand Fumo a longer sentence, but "that is certainly the implication that you would get from this opinion," said Bruce Antkowiak, director of the criminology and law program at St. Vincent College in Unity.

David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies federal criminal procedures, said that if Buckwalter reverses most of the decisions he made in determining Fumo's sentence, it could add years to his prison term.

"The judge basically had to reject every government argument for enhancement and give Fumo several downward breaks," he said.

Eric Epstein, co-founder of the reform group Rock the Capital, said the state would benefit from a heavier sentence because it would discourage other politicians from following Fumo's footsteps.

"The only way you're going to grout out corruption is to take your kid gloves off when you sentence politicians," he said.

G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, said he's "been amazed over the years" at the light sentences handed out for political corruption. More than 240 people were prosecuted at all levels of government in the 1970s and rarely received sentences of more than one or two years, he said.

"Whatever penalties were imposed, it didn't seem to put a stop sign in front of those people," he said. "I think if he gets a stiffer sentence, it will be a wake-up call."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said a stiffer sentence wouldn't have any effect because, for politicians, going to prison at all is the deterrent.

"Once you're talking about anything other than probation or four to five months in prison, it doesn't make much difference," he said.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo said he thinks the original sentence was enough.

"He's done a lot more good for people than he has done harm," the Highland Park Democrat said. Sentencing Fumo to 10 to 20 years is the same as giving him a life sentence, and he doesn't deserve that, Ferlo said.

"He's never going to be in politics again," Ferlo said. "What else do people want?"

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