Donatucci: Public Official, Private Empire Sometimes, Ronald R. Donatucci Is Philadelphia's Register Of Wills. Other Times, He's A Millionaire Businessman. Or A Lawyer In Private Practice. Often, It Can Be Hard To Tell The Difference.

Posted: October 17, 1994

As he moves around town in his royal blue city sedan, from his office on the first floor of City Hall to the outposts of his empire, the lines tend to blur.

At some point, as he heads down South Broad Street - and he is always on the move - Register of Wills Ronald R. Donatucci, 46, becomes Ron Donatucci, businessman; or Ron Donatucci, landlord, or Ron Donatucci, lawyer.

The change in roles is barely perceptible, though, thanks to a web of connections that links his political career and his private pursuits.

What holds them all together is an obscure but politically potent sinecure: the Register of Wills office.

The Register's office provides jobs for a cadre of loyal aides who also service Donatucci's plumbing-supply firm, his $2.5 million real estate holdings, and the South Philadelphia ward where he is Democratic leader.

It provides an entree to a major bank in which Donatucci, the Register of Wills, has deposited millions of dollars in public funds since 1981 and from which Donatucci, the businessman, has received more than $2 million in mortgages.

It provides often-lucrative estate cases that Donatucci passes out to business associates, former law partners, and ward leaders.

And, through a quirk in state law that exempts the office from the City Charter's civil-service rules, it provides 86 appointive jobs - giving Donatucci patronage power second only to the mayor's.

The biggest beneficiary of Ron Donatucci's patronage clout is Ron Donatucci.

He has used the clout skillfully, extending his political influence by hiring Democratic ward leaders or their favored committeepeople from 32 of the city's 69 wards.

They, in turn, have helped keep him in office for 15 years, deterring any rival from gaining enough backing among ward leaders to replace Donatucci as Register.

This is the sort of patronage system that reformers thought they had banned

from city government 40 years ago by imposing civil service - but that is still practiced openly in the Register's office.

Donatucci says it is the most efficient way to run government. Payroll and disability records suggest otherwise. Donatucci's patronage workers cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and sick-leave and on- the-job injury claims.

"Patronage works in our office," said Donatucci, a dapper man who wears fine Italian suits and, when not in his city sedan, drives a gold 1991 Mercedes-Benz.

It certainly works for Donatucci. It has enabled him to hire dozens of political allies and personal friends - a patronage chain that runs from a Democratic ward leader, to the stepdaughter of his senior law partner, to the daughter of one of his roofers, to the grandson of a ward leader - to work for him at City Hall.

"I try to be a good Register," Donatucci said. "I try to be a mediator. I try to be everyone's friend. I try to do good politics and good government. My word has always been my bond."

*

On the wall by the door of Donatucci's cluttered City Hall office, a bit frayed around the edges, is a 1956 pledge list from the Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day "One Hundred Club."

A friend of Donatucci's found the relic in the basement of the Bellevue Stratford hotel and gave it to him as a souvenir.

It is a register of Democratic heavyweights: Peter Camiel. Herbert Fineman. William J. Green Jr. Joseph S. Clark. Henry Cianfrani. Isadore Shrager. Emanuel Weinberg. Louis Vignola. George Schwartz. Thomas F. Donatucci.

Donatucci speaks reverently of his father, who died unexpectedly in 1970 at age 58. At the time, Tom Donatucci was the longtime leader of the 26th Ward and a deputy to Auditor General Robert P. Casey, now Pennsylvania's governor.

Casey was a pallbearer at Tom Donatucci's funeral and told his widow, Yolanda, to let him know if there was ever anything he could do. She took up

Casey on the offer, and soon, her middle son, Ron - just out of Temple University - went to work as an auditor in Casey's Philadelphia field office.

Two months later, in February 1971, Donatucci, then 22, enrolled as a night law student at the University of Baltimore.

The following year, he moved up a rung on the patronage ladder when Martin Weinberg, Mayor Frank L. Rizzo's city solicitor, hired him as a law clerk.

Donatucci moved up again two years later, in 1974, when Dominic Sabatini, Rizzo's commissioner of Licenses and Inspections, hired him on a provisional basis as chief of enforcement.

Donatucci quit that job in mid-year and ran successfully for Democratic leader of the 26th Ward, restoring the family's hegemony over the middle-class enclave of tree-lined streets and well-tended rowhouses west of Broad Street and south of Passyunk Avenue.

The next year, just out of law school, he was back on the patronage ladder as general counsel to the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

And the year after that, in 1976, Donatucci won the state House seat in the 185th Legislative District in South Philadelphia and headed for Harrisburg, where he served a term and a half - until one day in early 1979.

"I'll tell you the story - it's a true story," he recalled recently. "I was up at a reception in the Mellon Building - this is a true story; Marty Weinberg will confirm it - I walked into the men's room. Weinberg was in the men's room at the urinal, I'm beside him. He said, 'Would you be interested in running for Register of Wills?'

"And I said, 'Yeah, sure, I'd be interested.' "

In the campaign for Register in the 1979 spring primary, one of his Democratic rivals, Jack Collins, often lined up a row of mannequin busts, knocked them down with a swipe of his arm, and promised that "heads will roll" at City Hall if he was elected.

Donatucci, weaned on the spoils system, took the opposite tack: He advocated political patronage - and handily won the primary and general elections.

So it was that Donatucci took the oath of office as Register of Wills in January 1980. It was the beginning of a remarkable decade for him.

Donatucci had a fledgling law practice at the time and owned three South Philadelphia properties: two rowhouses and a twin across the street from the house on South 21st Street where he grew up.

Even as he was settling into the Register's office on the first floor of City Hall, he was planning to develop a prime piece of vacant land in the 1400 block of Spruce Street, just west of Broad.

Donatucci put up $15,000 in cash and received a $152,500 mortgage from Continental Bank to buy the land and build a 2,800-square-foot office building.

Continental, now known as Midlantic Bank N.A., had been his family's bank ''for a number of years, way before Ron Donatucci became Register of Wills," Donatucci said.

When Donatucci became Register, the office was also using Continental, depositing the fees it collected - more than $1 million a year - there. Donatucci opened a second Register's account at the bank, consolidating more than 100 checking accounts containing $700,000 into one large interest-bearing account. Those assets were left by people who had died without known heirs.

The money in this second account would earn more than $2 million in interest - and would, a decade later, trigger a round of intense negotiations with state officials over its ownership.

In 1982, two years into his first term as Register, Donatucci and his brother Robert - who had succeeded him as a state representative - bought Acme Plumbing & Heating Supply Co. Inc. from an uncle for $210,000. They financed the purchase with a $175,000 mortgage from Continental.

In 1986, when they expanded the plumbing-supply firm and moved it to the present location at 1701 Washington Ave., they financed the expansion with a $375,000 mortgage from Continental.

In the next five years, Continental lent Ron Donatucci $1,564,700 on 10 other properties he acquired in Philadelphia.

By the end of the 1980s, his real estate portfolio had grown to 16 commercial properties in Philadelphia worth $2.5 million. The properties are held by Donatucci's real estate company, Debro Investments. All but three of the purchases were financed by Continental Bank.

In addition to the 16 commercial properties, Donatucci had purchased a condominium in Boca Raton, Fla., now assessed at $210,000, and a Shore house in Margate, assessed at $183,000.

Jay Hartmann, a senior vice president at Midlantic Bank's headquarters in Edison, N.J., said Continental's dealings with Donatucci were within the bank's ethics policy on transactions with government officials.

"All of the relationships we have with Mr. Donatucci, either personal or in his public role, are treated in the same way we treat any other customer in similar circumstances," Hartmann said. "We don't seem to be giving any preferential treatment to the public side or his personal side at all."

Hartmann said the bank's ethics policy prohibited bank employees from

discussing business opportunities or employment with government officials doing business with the bank.

Continental's dealings with Donatucci would not constitute such discussions, "because he's being treated the way any other customer of the bank would be treated," Hartmann said.

Hartmann said bank policy prohibited him from discussing the terms or loan- to-equity ratios of Donatucci's mortgages.

Donatucci said he recently refinanced seven Philadelphia properties, worth more than $1 million, with a "blanket mortgage" from Continental. He said the loan-to-equity ratio was 62 percent - meaning that the mortgage amount represented 62 percent of the properties' value, as appraised by Continental.

Federal guidelines on commercial real estate lending say loan-to-value ratios should not exceed 85 percent.

"I've gone to extremes (to act ethically) with Continental Bank, because I know my life is an open book," Donatucci said. "The question is, what special service are they getting from me?"

The second Register's account - the Special Interest Account that Donatucci had consolidated - had earned about $2 million in interest by 1992.

Continental manages the account for a fee of $1 per $1,000 in assets per year.

Because assets left by those who die without wills and heirs ultimately go to the state, Pennsylvania Auditor General Barbara Hafer had more than a passing interest in the Special Interest Account when it turned up during a routine audit in 1991.

Hafer reported in January 1992 that the $2.2 million in interest earnings had not been reported to the Revenue Department.

Because the law was unclear about who was entitled to the interest earned on estate accounts opened before 1982, the state Department of Revenue and Donatucci agreed in May 1993 to split the interest, with half going to the state and half going into the city's general fund.

Donatucci said it had been his business acumen that resulted in all that interest piling up. He said Continental's fees for managing the account were modest - about $2,800 a year by the time that principal and interest totaled $2.9 million.

"They're so paranoid, banks today," he added. "You could rest assured that they go to extremes to make sure they don't give me special treatment. As a matter of fact, I may be penalized because of who I am."

Ron Donatucci has not been bashful about letting people know who he is.

When his wife, Debra, tested poorly for a clerk stenographer's job with Common Pleas Court in 1982, Donatucci called court officials on her behalf. She got the job after a top court official recommended in a memo that the court "waive the usual qualifying procedure." (The Donatuccis have since divorced.)

Those court officials had reason to help Donatucci, one of the city's most powerful ward leaders. He and his 68 fellow ward leaders, who make up the Democratic City Committee, have an impressive record in nominating and helping elect judges.

When Donatucci's mother's home was burglarized in 1986, he persuaded court officials to help him circumvent court procedures to get higher bail set for a

suspect.

By the time the suspect was arraigned, two Municipal Court judges, the president judge of Common Pleas Court, and a chief deputy administrator of Common Pleas Court all had become involved in the case at Donatucci's behest.

In 1987 - the year Donatucci easily won a third term as Register - his growing prominence contributed to his becoming "special counsel" at Mesirov, Gelman, Jaffe, Cramer & Jamieson, the Center City law firm for which Ed Rendell worked.

Mesirov Gelman inherited some of the clients of Donatucci's small firm, and John F. Raimondi, Donatucci's law partner, went to work for the Register's office.

In 1989, affirming Donatucci's status as a political and legal heavyweight, the city's judges elected him to a lifetime seat on the Board of City Trusts, which manages $500 million in assets and runs Girard Estate, Girard College and Wills Eye Hospital.

Donatucci even outpolled powerhouse State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who was elected to the board at the same time.

Despite his influence, Donatucci does not play power politics on the same level as Mayor Rendell and Fumo. He has not pushed the political careers of others, except his brother Robert. He seldom is involved in brokering political deals, concentrating instead on his own enterprises.

"Ronnie's not interested in building a network beyond his ward, the 185th Legislative District and the Register of Wills office," said a Democratic ward leader, who asked not to be quoted by name.

So skillful has Donatucci been in using the patronage power of his office that many political insiders consider him virtually immune from defeat.

"He's made the office sort of maintenance-free politically through very astute use of patronage," another ward leader said. "He's sort of covered all the bases. It would be very hard for anyone running against him to assemble any ward leader support."

"The proof is in the pudding," said Gerard Kosinski, a lawyer and Democratic ward leader from Kensington to whom Donatucci has assigned two lucrative estate cases. "He's never been defeated. And nobody's ever run against him in a primary. You build a little fortress for yourself. You please everybody. And you turn out quite happy."

The issue before City Council's Rules Committee was regulating billboards. So it seemed unusual for the Register of Wills to be leaning over the brass rail in Council chambers whispering in the ear of Councilwoman Anna Cibotti Verna, lobbying for the billboard industry.

Donatucci's connection to the industry was clear, though, to those who knew the extensive network of political, familial and financial connections he had constructed over two decades of public life:

One of Donatucci's cousins is married to Thomas Glenn, an executive at Interstate Outdoor Advertising.

One month after the June 1990 City Council hearing - at which legislation opposed by the industry was scuttled - Glenn and other billboard executives contributed $3,100 to Donatucci's campaign committee.

It was one of many ways that Donatucci's public and private lives work to the advantage of each other.

Campaign-finance reports show how people involved in real estate, plumbing supply and law - Donatucci's areas of private interest - frequently contribute to the Register's re-election campaigns.

Continental Bank, which made loans to Donatucci's plumbing and real estate companies, contributed $1,000 to his 1991 re-election campaign.

Gerald DiCicco, who runs a plumbing-supply firm called Plumb-Town Inc. and was once a business partner of Donatucci's, contributed $800.

Many lawyers also made contributions. They include Nicholas Pannarella, a former law associate, and Paul L. Jaffe, who heads the law firm where Donatucci works. Each gave Donatucci $300.

Jaffe's stepdaughter, Sharon Weinberg, a law student at Tulane University, worked this summer as a $10-an-hour intern on the Register's payroll - another place where Donatucci's public and private interests meet.

Also hired as a summer intern was Brian Levin, whose father, Harvey, is a member of the city's Board of View, which values properties in condemnation proceedings.

April Virelli was hired in February as a $12-an-hour clerical aide. Her father, Donald Virelli, does roofing work on Donatucci's properties.

Robert D. Solvibile began in March, as a $10-an-hour clerical aide. His father, Robert D. Solvibile Sr., is a senior official at the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, another hub of Donatucci connections.

At Mesirov Gelman, Donatucci says, his law practice involves mostly zoning and real estate matters relating to Licenses and Inspections.

Ferdinando J. Tursi Jr., a $27,500-a-year clerk on the Register of Wills' payroll, is the son of Ferdinando J. Tursi, an L&I plumbing inspector.

And Anthony Caiazza, now executive assistant to L&I Commissioner Bennett Levin, is one of Donatucci's real estate partners.

Another Donatucci real estate partner is Thomas J. Kelly Jr., former head of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Donatucci once appointed Kelly's wife, Frances R. Kelly, to administer an estate case, for which she earned $9,549 in fees from the estate.

P. Charles DeRita also received from Donatucci an estate case to administer, earning $4,984 in 1991. He is an executive at Hallmark Abstract Co., a title-insurance firm with which Donatucci, as a landlord, has done business. DeRita has contributed $600 to Donatucci's campaign fund since 1990.

Then there is Acme Plumbing.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority bought $784,809 in plumbing supplies

from Acme from 1989 through 1992. Donatucci said the high volume of business was based on competitive bidding, not connections.

After the PHA contracts with Acme were reported in The Inquirer in 1992, the housing authority stopped doing business with Donatucci's firm to avoid any appearance of favoritism, contract officer James Herrmann said.

"We just decided it was something we shouldn't be doing," Herrmann said.

Donatucci said in an interview that it was he who had broken off the business relationship, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

As PHA and Acme were ending their relationship, a Republican named Guy Ciarrocchi pounced on the issue and sent out campaign fliers in the fall of 1992.

Ciarrocchi came within a whisker of claiming Robert Donatucci's state House seat - and actually beat him on the Donatuccis' home turf, the 26th Ward.

In the campaign, the Donatuccis funneled almost $4,000 in political ''street money" and other Election Day expenses through six employees of the Register's office. Thomas F. Gehret, a deputy Register and ward leader, received $1,900 to get out the vote. Robert D. Stewart, a $27,573-a-year record clerk from Ward 40A, received $1,070.

The real force that fended off Ciarrocchi's challenge was not Bob Donatucci; it was the Register of Wills and his employees.

"I know there were voters who were angry at the Donatuccis and couldn't always distinguish" the brothers from one another, Ciarrocchi said. "Bob has always benefited from Ronny's leadership and his power. So Bobby lived by the sword, and he almost died by the sword."

During the 1992 campaign, Ron Donatucci sent John Raimondi to fill in for Bob Donatucci in a debate with Ciarrocchi.

Raimondi is a versatile man.

Break your lease in one of Ron Donatucci's apartments, and John Raimondi files suit.

Refuse to pay up at Donatucci's plumbing-supply firm, and Raimondi files suit.

When the city slaps a code violation on one of Donatucci's properties, it is John Raimondi for the defense.

When the Register of Wills office conducts an official hearing about a disputed will, Raimondi presides.

And when Donatucci runs for a new term, Raimondi is the campaign treasurer.

Who is this man?

John Raimondi used to be Donatucci's law partner. He's still practicing law, and now he's also Donatucci's $53,350-a-year first deputy register of wills.

He ranks as chief among a cadre of trusted aides who perform services for other parts of the Donatucci empire.

When Donatucci began eviction proceedings against Andrea Boccelli and Charles Daniel from his property at 1615 Porter St., a Municipal Court ''notice of termination of lease" was served by Saverio Celia, the Register's $46,536-a-year administrative assistant.

The notices identify Celia - who frequently serves as Donatucci's driver and "gofer" - as a Municipal Court "landlord-tenant officer."

When ABC Sewer Cleaning Co. Inc. fell behind in its payment to Donatucci's plumbing-supply firm in 1990, a statement of claim was delivered to one of ABC's principals, Dennis Cohen, by Domenic Dinella, a $40,492-a-year assistant chief register of wills. Cohen later worked out a settlement with Raimondi.

Then there is Tom Gehret, Donatucci's $45,000-a-year deputy in charge of Orphans' Court litigation. Gehret is Democratic leader of Ward 40B, which makes him important to the Donatucci brothers, because part of his ward is in Rep. Donatucci's 185th Legislative District.

Gehret is one of three lawyers on Donatucci's staff who draw full-time salaries while maintaining private law practices - as Guy Ciarrocchi found out.

Several months after the Republican's November 1992 narrow loss to Rep. Donatucci, Gehret filed a private criminal complaint against Ciarrocchi's mother and brother on behalf of a tenant they were trying to evict. The tenant contended that the Ciarrocchis were hostile and threatening.

Ciarrocchi says the complaint - which eventually was thrown out of court - was intended "to harass my mom and harass me, either as a payback for the past or a warning for the future to show me who was in charge."

Gehret said his representation of the woman, without charge, had had nothing to do with Ciarrocchi's campaign. "This was terrible," he said of her treatment by Ciarrocchi's mother and brother. "She came to my attention as a girl who was being evicted from a home with four young children."

Ron Donatucci said the tenant had come to him as ward leader, seeking help. ''Mrs. Kelly, if I remember her name, came in off the street crying. She says, 'I've got four little children, I'm being evicted.' "

He said he had had no choice but to help her by offering Gehret's legal assistance.

"This is America. This is not the first time we represented people free. I mean, that's the reputation we have."

The Broad Street subway rumbles beneath the floor of Room 176 City Hall, where Ron Donatucci sits at a cluttered desk with a phone permanently wedged between his shoulder and his neck.

On the wall to the left of his desk - across the room from the 1956 register of Democratic heavyweights that includes the name of his father - Donatucci has framed a short article from a 1977 Philadelphia magazine, describing him as a rising star of the Democratic Party.

"The young and clean new Democratic leader of the famed 26th Ward. He's in very tight with Rizzo and could come out as the next big Italian power broker in South Philly."

Vince Fumo, as it turned out, became the next big power broker. And Ron Donatucci became Register of Wills.

"Ronny's a stand-up guy," party chairman Bob Brady said recently. "I have no doubt that he's going to run again. And there's nothing that I know of that says he won't be successful."

OK, so he's not playing on Vince Fumo's level. "I'm happy being the Register of Wills," Donatucci said, with a look of true contentment. "Maybe some years down the road I'll become a judge. I'm too young for it now. I have too much energy to burn."

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