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On the bench, Fumo's BFF: Buckwalter

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Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011
 

HARRISBURG

The feds filed too many charges against ex-state Sen. Vincent Fumo, his good works in public and private life mitigated his crimes, and it wasn't as if he were charged with taking bribes or pocketing state money.

The viewpoint of Fumo's lawyer, perhaps• Nope, that was part of the reasoning by U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter, who added a mere six more months to Fumo's 55-month sentence. Buckwalter had been ordered to resentence Fumo because his first sentence in 2009 was too lenient.

On the redo, Buckwalter gave Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat, a pass again.

Never mind that Fumo's fraud totaled $4 million. A jury convicted him of 137 corruption charges in 2009. He used state taxpayers' money and a nonprofit's money as if it were his own. Senate staffers did his personal and political chores. State-paid employees worked on his farm; they balanced his checkbooks. A taxpayer-paid private detective snooped on his personal and political enemies. Political polls were paid for by the taxpayers.

But hey, he wasn't putting money in his own pocket.

Call Buckwalter's resentence outrageous, incomprehensible or plain rotten. Take your pick.

It was clear to me that this quirky 74-year-old senior judge should no longer be hearing cases in federal court.

His kid-glove handling of Fumo was unconscionable.

It irked Buckwalter that prosecutors used Fumo's e-mails, sent from a federal prison account, to show he wanted to exact revenge on his enemies when released. His e-mails also showed he had no remorse. "There were no victims," Fumo wrote. Buckwalter virtually scolded assistant U.S. attorneys for using the e-mails.

Buckwalter also felt sorry for all of Fumo's ailments, from diabetes to depression. He did reluctantly agree that Fumo had those ailments when he committed the crimes.

This notion that the multimillion-dollar fraud on taxpayers wasn't important because it wasn't bribery or theft is ludicrous.

Of course, it was theft. Just as former House Speaker John Perzel's use of $10 million for computer programs and equipment to help Republicans win elections was theft. So was former House Minority Leader Mike Veon's use of $1.8 million in bonuses to House Democrat staffers who worked on campaigns.

Federal prosecutors and agents who at times visited the courtroom during Buckwalter's two-day defense of his slap on the wrist varyingly looked perplexed and saddened by what transpired.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zausmer put the best spin possible on it in talking to reporters later. Yes, it was a disappointment. But in the big picture, the federal government had removed Fumo from office and sent him to prison.

Still, Buckwalter seemed sensitive to the widespread public criticism of his first sentence. The judge asked one witness whether he had heard anything about the court's integrity being challenged and essentially got a "no."

I heard a lot of that in 2009. But watching Buckwalter in person, I don't believe that was anything untoward. He seems like a decent man. He just had a blind spot on this case. Call it stubbornness, a character flaw, a distorted perception of the facts.

Nothing hinky.

Just a judge way past his prime.

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