Once-mighty Councilman Harry P. Jannotti Dies

Posted: September 05, 1998

Harry P. Jannotti, 74, a once-powerful Philadelphia councilman who went to jail for taking a $10,000 bribe during the Abscam scandal nearly two decades ago, died Thursday afternoon at Allegheny University Hospitals/Parkview.

Friends said that Mr. Jannotti, who emerged from the political wilderness in May as the Democratic leader of the 19th Ward in West Kensington, was diagnosed only recently with cancer.

``He went to the doctor's and said he didn't feel good,'' said Margaret Tartaglione, chairwoman of the city commissioners and a longtime friend. ``His wife calls to say he's in the hospital - and a week and a half later, he's dead.''

Carlos Matos, who was second-in-command at the ward headquarters in the rear of Mr. Jannotti's York Street tavern, said he found the 6-foot-3 Mr. Jannotti in what he thought was a coma at the hospital Wednesday.

``I screamed at him, `Come on, Harry! We've got to get a ward meeting together.' He snapped to. . . . He said, `We're going to fight this thing. We're going to beat it.' ''

At the peak of his power in the late 1970s, Mr. Jannotti was City Council majority leader, chairman of the Finance Committee, and vice chairman of the Rules and Appropriations Committee.

He also was a member of the Philadelphia Gas Commission and, for 10 years, ran the city's gift property program - through which abandoned homes were given to low-income people to renovate and live in.

Tartaglione remembered Mr. Jannotti yesterday as a councilman who ``served his constituents well'' for 13 years and sought to do so, again, as ward leader. She said that many of his old friends were delighted when, after years of absence from politics, he was elected ward leader.

``He was glad to get back, and I was glad for him.''

Even an old foe, City Council President John F. Street, recalled Mr. Jannotti as unsurpassed in bending the bureaucracy to provide city services to the residents of the Seventh Councilmanic District in Kensington and Frankford.

Street, as a Council first-termer in 1980, demanded that Mr. Jannotti remove himself from Council because of the stain of his arrest. But he says he always recognized that Mr. Jannotti worked hard for his district.

``He distinguished himself in Council and rose to become probably the second-most influential member of City Council,'' Street said. ``He made a very considerable political career for himself, and then, of course, he threw it all away.''

In 1980, Mr. Jannotti was one of three Council members - along with two Philadelphia congressmen - who were arrested in an FBI sting operation designed to capture public officials accepting bribes. The operation was dubbed Abscam because one of the agents posed as a wealthy Arab sheik seeking to buy influence in the United States.

Mr. Jannotti was secretly videotaped taking $10,000 from the phony sheik at the Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square. In return, Mr. Jannotti promised to use his influence to win approval for a luxury hotel that the sheik said he wanted to build.

During his federal court trial, Mr. Jannotti's lawyers argued that he had been acting out of ``dedication to the city'' in agreeing to help get the necessary approvals for the hotel. In addition, they tried to portray Mr. Jannotti as a well-intentioned victim of overzealous FBI agents.

Mr. Jannotti was convicted of conspiracy to extort in November 1980. But the presiding judge, U.S. District Court Judge John P. Fullam, soon after struck down the conviction on the ground that Mr. Jannotti had been illegally entrapped by the FBI. That decision was later overturned by a federal appeals court panel.

In 1985, after a long appeals process, he entered Allenwood Federal Prison, where he served 4 1/2 months.

Peter F. Vaira, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mr. Jannotti, said yesterday that Abscam marked a dark chapter in Philadelphia politics.

``The Abscam scandal was a brief but disturbing glimpse into the seedier aspects of the operation of city government,'' said Vaira, who is now a lawyer in private practice in Philadelphia. ``It surprised many that political favor could be bought so easily. I was jaundiced, but it even surprised me.''

Former State Sen. Henry J. ``Buddy'' Cianfrani, who went to Allenwood in the 1970s, also for misusing his office, said that Mr. Jannotti did a lot of good for ordinary people.

Cianfrani and Mr. Jannotti were among a half-dozen elected officials from Philadelphia who went to jail over a period of two decades. Cianfrani several years ago regained his ward leadership post in South Philadelphia. He said he was happy to see Mr. Jannotti get his chance, too.

``I don't condone all the people who got in trouble, like myself and all,'' Cianfrani said. ``But I'll tell you something. . . . You look at all these righteous, sanctimonious people - you look at their record; they never did anything for anybody.''

An outwardly gruff man of few words, Mr. Jannotti could seem an overwhelming physical presence. He had large features and a perpetually weary look that gave him a slight resemblance to former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mr. Jannotti graduated from Northeast High School and attended Temple University. Before running for office, he worked as chief deputy clerk to Council for 1 1/2 years.

A protege of former City Council President George X. Schwartz, also ensnared by Abscam, Mr. Jannotti was elected to Council in a special election in 1969 to fill a seat vacated by Joseph J. Hersch.

Mr. Jannotti owned the York Tavern at York and Fourth Streets at the time, and he continued to tend bar there throughout his political career.

Even after leaving Council, Mr. Jannotti remained a behind-the-scenes power for a while. He maintained his position as Democratic leader of the 19th Ward, and played a major role in helping his longtime administrative aide, Patricia Hughes, win the election to replace him in 1983 as the Council representative of the Seventh District.

In 1987, after emerging from prison, Mr. Jannotti sought again to serve in Council.

Eager to hold her seat, Hughes went to court seeking to block him from running under a provision in the Pennsylvania Constitution that prohibits anyone convicted of ``infamous crimes'' from holding ``any office of trust or profit.''

One day before the Democratic primary, the state Supreme Court ordered Mr. Jannotti's name removed from voting machines that had already been programmed for the Hughes-Jannotti battle.

A year later, Mr. Jannotti lost his ward leadership post to State Rep. Ralph Acosta, who seemed to better represent the increasing Hispanic population of the 19th Ward.

This spring, with Hispanic ward committee members split over who should be elected ward leader, Mr. Jannotti was seen as a compromise leader, according to Matos.

Mr. Jannotti is survived by his wife, Jeane Groesbeck, and four children, Patricia-Annette Dieterly, Barbara-Jeane, Frederick C. and Constance Gail. He is also survived by his mother, Jennie; six grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

A viewing will take place from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Peter the Apostle Church, Fifth Street and Girard Avenue. A Funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m.

Burial will be at Whitemarsh Memorial Park. Memorial contributions may be made to the restoration fund at the church, 1019 N. Fifth St., Philadelphia 19123.

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