by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young
Finally it's fini! The state's most extensive public corruption trial in a generation is over after five months, more than 100 witnesses, and some 1,300 exhibits. The jury's verdict, ending one of Pennsylvania's longest running legal soap operas, concluded not only the protracted trial, but the fabled career of Vincent Fumo, one of Pennsylvania's most powerful political figures.
The conviction of the former state senator on 137 counts will be remarked upon for many reasons, not least for the bizarre aspects of the proceedings. Testimony at the trial revealed purchases of $100 dollar gallons of paint, $6000 shower curtains for a home, attempts to spy on political enemies, searches through the garbage of a political rival, and perhaps weirdest of all, his son-in-law's testimony for the prosecution.
In the end, the Fumo case was vintage political theater, a veritable Greek tragedy, evoking the classic story of how the mighty can fall, driven in part by greed, hubris, and sense of entitlement.
But the sad saga now ended should not exit the public stage before setting the entire episode into the larger context of state political history - a history that includes a long and lingering record of political corruption reaching back as far as the Civil War era.
The Fumo case best gains perspective when compared and contrasted to several earlier prototype cases, each, like Fumo, celebrated in its time. Over the past forty years five such cases come to mind. Each featured charges and convictions against one of the state's leading political figures, and each is emblematic of the type of public corruption historically associated with the state.
The Fumo case will raise the question of whether the state is veering back toward its earlier culture of corruption. Indeed, once upon a time using the term "public corruption" in the same sentence with "state of Pennsylvania" was to risk a tautology. In those good-old bad days the politics was rough, the politicians nasty, and the niceties of legal moral and ethical correctness were seldom observed or expected.
The 1970's and 80's were notorious if not especially noteworthy. In those years, dozens of state and local politicians pleaded guilty or were convicted of corruption. The U.S. Justice Department declared that Pennsylvania was the most corrupt among the 50 states.
But more recent history is mixed. Since Shapp left office in the late 1970's there has not been a case of major corruption in the state's executive branch going back across four governors. Still, even during that period a former Attorney General went to jail, as did a state Auditor General and several state legislators.
And currently two former lawmakers and ten legislative staff member are caught up in the so called bonus-gate scandal, the most far reaching investigation of wrongdoing by state officials in modern history. Additional indictments are likely to follow, and the Fumo conviction must be added to the pile.
It is possible to look at the Fumo case as an outlier, one politician too long in office, too powerful, and too arrogant to see the destruction he was courting. But put together with the bonus-gate investigation, in the context of a long and often sordid state history, Fumo looks less like a random blip and more like an ominous pattern. The state's recent respite from the scourge of public corruption may be over. That sickening recognition may be Vince Fumo's ultimate legacy.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is a Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner at Michael Young Strategic Research. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2009 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.