Get a hit just one out of three times, and you’re in the Hall of Fame. Get nine out of ten problems right on a math test and you’re a star student. Nail one of the biggest political dirtbags in Pennsylvania history with 100 percent success — gaining convictions on every one of 137 federal counts — and you’re the bad guy. You’re the one who gets roundly reamed out in very public fashion. You’re the one criticized for disregarding the law.
In becoming the new poster boy in the "What the F&*# was he thinking?!" category, United States District Judge Ronald Buckwalter did the unthinkable — again — by giving former State Senator Vince Fumo a Get Out Of Jail (Almost) Free card.
Convicted of charges in 2009, ranging from public corruption to tax offenses, and from fraud to obstruction of justice, Fumo received the appallingly light sentence of just 4 ½ years. People routinely get sentenced to a whole lot more for a whole lot less.
But this Judge, who before the trial was viewed as somewhat competent, made a series of mistakes after conviction, including incorrectly reading the sentencing guidelines. So he was forced by an appeals court to re-sentence Fumo.
Despite the fact that:
A) Every one of the convictions still stood,
B) Federal sentencing guidelines called for 17 to 22 years,
C) The public and legal community had been outraged at the original lenient punishment, and
D) Fumo showed absolutely no remorse — none —, which the Judge acknowledged,
E) Buckwalter gave Fumo six more months. That’s not a typo. Not six more years, which itself would have been woefully inadequate, but six short months.
Just writing that is enough to make you vomit.
Ronald Buckwalter is an absolute disgrace to the federal bench, and his flagrant disregard for justice calls into the question the very nature of lifetime judicial appointments. There is simply no rational explanation for his pig-headed decisions regarding Fumo, but making the sin mortal was chastising the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
That’s like a parent blaming the teacher because his child bombed the test.
The investigation, which started under then-U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan, was thorough and professional, without so much as a single black mark. The investigators brought what they believed to be an iron-clad case against Fumo, and a jury of Fumo’s peers obviously agreed.
In appealing Buckwalter’s original sentence, the Office again acted responsibly, correctly noting Buckwalter’s mistakes, and seeking the only thing that everyone but Fumo and his dwindling posse wanted: justice.
An appropriate punishment at the original sentencing should have ended the Fumo saga, but like the referee who feels compelled to upstage the players and become the center of attention, Buckwalter seemed to want the headlines for himself.
Mission accomplished Judge. But at what price?
His disparagement of the U.S. Attorney’s office without a doubt provided ammunition for future defendants to argue that they too are the victims of overzealous, politically-motivated prosecutors. Wittingly or not, Judge Buckwalter opened a Pandora’s Box that will be very difficult to close.
In calling the prosecution excessive, Buckwalter stated that Fumo should not have been charged with so many counts, when in reality, he could have been charged with more. He even went so far as to label the prosecution’s efforts "unfair."
No, the prosecution was more than fair. They didn’t commit the crimes. Vince Fumo did. What’s patently unfair is letting him off easy because he was an "effective" legislator (which, by the way, is one of the biggest myths in all of Harrisburg, but that’s another story.) and because he was involved in charitable works.
Excuse us, Judge, but what does that have to do with anything?
You do the crime, you do the time. It’s that simple. And for the other factors that may have played a role in leniency, they too should have been irrelevant.
If, because of poor health, Fumo would have died in prison if given a longer sentence, so be it. If, because he would have been a very old man getting out of prison had he gotten the lengthy punishment he deserved, that’s his problem. No one held a gun to Fumo’s head to embark on a life of crime.
To give Fumo what is perceived by most to be special treatment is, in some respects, the biggest crime of all. Not illegal, of course, as sentencing is at Buckwalter’s discretion, but criminal in the sense that justice was not adequately served.
Perhaps more than any other city, Philadelphia has a reputation for rampant, institutionalized corruption. For decades, the bad guys always seemed to operate with impunity. From rigged elections to pols illegally living it up on the taxpayers’ dime, the perception, rightly so, was that the politically-connected could operate above the law, and the average Joe got the shaft.
But then a funny thing happened. After witnessing numerous convictions at the city, county and state levels, most notable in the Bonusgate scandal, the public started to believe again. Hope was renewed. Turns out that the people, through their honest, hard working prosecutors, were fighting City Hall — and winning.
Faith in truth, justice and the American way, now restored, hit its pinnacle when Vince Fumo, once untouchable, was brought back down to Earth, led away in handcuffs. But when the original sentence was announced, the collective breath of our society was forcibly expelled, the result of an immense kick to the gut.
Yet hope remained, if by a delicate thread. It wasn’t over. Maybe, just maybe, things would be made right, and Vince Fumo would finally "get his" at the re-sentencing. But as before, the people were left devastated, angry, and dumbfounded. Somehow, Fumo escaped the fate he deserved.
And with that, all the goodwill and hope that had been cautiously accumulating evaporated in a heartbeat. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
The bitter hardness that is Philadelphia’s attitude just got stiffer. As a direct result of the Fumo travesty, no longer do folks believe in fairness, but instead have reverted back to the "they’re all corrupt, they’re all in it together" mentality. And who can blame them?
No matter how you slice it, the bad guys came away with the better hand, and the good guys finished last. Thank you, Judge Buckwalter.
There is no worse death that the end of hope. And more than anything, that’s why Philadelphia is dying.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television/radio commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com His self-syndicated model has earned him the largest cumulative media voice in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at [email protected]