Harry P. Jannotti Recalled As Champion Of His Constituents

Posted: September 06, 1998

Harry P. Jannotti was a key figure in a dark chapter of Philadelphia politics - the Abscam scandal of the early 1980s, in which he was convicted of taking a $10,000 bribe as a city councilman.

But after his death at age 74 from cancer Thursday at Allegheny University Hospitals/Parkview, he was remembered by friends as the tall, weary-eyed man who could wring services for his constituents from a recalcitrant city bureaucracy. An overwhelming physical presence, Jannotti bore a slight resemblance to former President Lyndon B. Johnson. When he put his arm on someone's shoulder and took him aside, he could be almost the equal of Johnson in his persuasiveness.

Even an old foe, City Council President John F. Street, said that Jannotti was unsurpassed in hard work in his 13 years representing the Seventh District in Kensington and Frankford.

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

At the peak of his power in the late 1970s, Jannotti was 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 houses were given to people to renovate and live in.

In 1980, 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.

Jannotti was secretly videotaped taking $10,000 from the phony sheik in a room at the Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square. In return, 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, 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 Jannotti as a well-intentioned victim of overzealous FBI agents.

Jannotti was convicted of conspiracy to extort in November 1980. But the presiding judge, U.S. District Court Judge John P. Fullam, struck down the conviction soon afterward on the grounds that the FBI had illegally entrapped Jannotti. 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 Jannotti, said Friday: ``The Abscam scandal was a brief but disturbing glimpse into the seedier aspects of the operation of city government. 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, Abscam aside, Jannotti did a lot of good for the ordinary people of Philadelphia.

Cianfrani and Jannotti were among a half-dozen elected officials from Philadelphia who went to jail during two decades.

``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.''

Friends said they were delighted for Jannotti in May when, after years of political exile, he was elected Democratic leader of the 19th Ward - not a post as grand as a member of Council, but still a spot in which he could act in his neighbors' behalf.

``He was glad to get back, and I was glad for him,'' said Margaret Tartaglione, chairwoman of the city commissioners and a longtime friend.

Tartaglione said Jannotti's death caught friends off guard. He was diagnosed with cancer only weeks ago.

``He went to the doctor's and said he didn't feel good,'' she said. ``His wife calls to say he's in the hospital - and a week and a half later, he's dead.''

Tartaglione remembered Jannotti yesterday as a man who ``served his constituents well'' in Council and sought to do so, again, as ward leader.

Carlos Matos, who was second-in-command at the ward headquarters in the back of Jannotti's York Street tavern, said he found the 6-foot-3 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.' ''

Jannotti graduated from Northeast High School and attended Temple University. Before running for office, he worked as chief deputy clerk to Council for a year and a half.

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

Jannotti owned the York Tavern at York and Fourth Streets at the time, and tended bar there throughout his political career.

Even after leaving Council, 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, 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 Jannotti's name removed from voting machines that already had been programmed for the Hughes-Jannotti battle.

A year later, 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, Jannotti was seen as a compromise leader, according to Matos.

``Harry could bring everybody together,'' Matos said.

In a postelection interview, Jannotti said: ``I don't run it as a ward. I run it as a family. We all work together.''

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

A viewing will be held 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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