Street ally pleads guilty to corruption charges The mayor's former law partner admitted using his position to enrich himself and raise funds.

Posted: December 14, 2005

Head bowed, hands clasped, Philadelphia lawyer Leonard N. Ross pleaded guilty to corruption charges yesterday, becoming the 15th person convicted in the federal government's City Hall investigation.

The plea reverberated throughout City Hall, and Mayor Street issued a statement in which he accused Ross of violating his personal trust, noting that just last week he had publicly reaffirmed their 20-year friendship.

Ross, the mayor's former law partner, admitted that he used his position as leader of the Penn's Landing redevelopment committee to enrich himself, raise campaign contributions, and repay a large debt that threatened his legal career.

"I've had better days, Your Honor," Ross told U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson. "I'm pleading guilty because the charges set forth what I did."

As Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben summarized the evidence, Ross dabbed his eyes.

Afterward, defense lawyer James C. Schwartzman said: "Len has seen his life go from being a well-respected lawyer to a pariah. He's lost everything. He's separated from his wife, will lose his law license, and faces jail. He didn't just use bad judgment - he used horrific judgment. It's sad."

Baylson set sentencing for April 19. The advisory federal guidelines call for a term of 18 months to 33 months.

Gov. Rendell said he was "really saddened" by Ross' plea. A prominent Democratic fund-raiser, Ross is a former assistant district attorney and a native Philadelphian.

"I always thought he was a very fine guy, and it is tough," Rendell, a former Philadelphia district attorney and mayor, said in an interview. "You get into this stuff and unless you are just rigid about drawing a line, it is easy to get caught up and make a mistake, a big-time mistake."

In a statement yesterday, Street said: "I must express my personal disappointment and strongly condemn the illegal behavior Leonard Ross has admitted today in federal court. . . . As I said last week, Leonard Ross has been my friend for more than 20 years. However, he violated the personal trust I placed in him."

Street added that "such misbehavior is not only illegal, it erodes public confidence in government's integrity."

In 2003, the Penn's Landing project attracted eight developers who submitted secret bids to develop the 13-acre tract. Two developers Ross solicited were named finalists. Last year, Street announced that neither would be selected. Both plans were too expensive, Street said.

Ross signed the plea deal last week, less than 24 hours before an expected federal grand jury indictment. His lawyer faxed a signed copy of the final papers to prosecutors only 90 minutes before a scheduled news conference by U.S. Attorney Patrick L. Meehan.

Ross pleaded guilty to charges of corruption and conspiracy to commit extortion.

From one developer bidding on the project, Ross solicited work for his wife, who works in real estate. For another, he provided inside information in exchange for help securing a $150,000 loan.

Ross used most of that money to free himself from a large debt and thorny legal predicament.

He had botched a $540,000 medical-malpractice settlement that he had secured for a widow's family, and, two years later, still owed her $120,000. A Montgomery County judge had threatened to hold him in contempt, and legal disciplinary authorities were investigating.

Ross also delayed the developer-selection process in order to give bidders more time to contribute to Street's reelection campaign. Prosecutors said this earned Street an extra $50,000.

"I know you will find this hard to believe," Schwartzman said after yesterday's hearing, "but at the time, Len didn't really appreciate the consequences of what he was doing. He certainly does now and knows what he did was a crime."

Ross' life, once "exemplary," is now in tatters, Schwartzman said.

"I'd wonder if he could even pay a $10,000 fine," the lawyer said. "He has no assets to speak of. . . . Sometimes perception is not reality. Len never made a lot of money."

Ross earned nearly $400,000 in 2002, according to a court document. Schwartzman said that year was an aberration. Prosecutors said in a court filing that Ross became "embittered" when he did not reap contracts and contacts he expected as a fund-raiser and member of Street's inner circle.

Ross' mistake?

"Ron White," Schwartzman said.

White, another Street fund-raiser, was indicted with 11 others last year as the central figure in the City Hall corruption scandal. White died before trial, but 10 others, including former City Treasurer Corey Kemp, were convicted.

In the Penn's Landing project, White was the lobbyist for a developer and Ross provided him with inside information.

The FBI placed the taps on White's phones after taps on the phones of Muslim cleric Shamsud-din Ali recorded evidence of alleged corruption at City Hall. Ali and three others were convicted on corruption charges this year.

Taps on White's and Ali's phones provided enough evidence for the FBI to persuade a federal judge to authorize planting listening devices in the mayor's office. Authorities suspected that Street and White were trading city contracts for campaign contributions.

The bugs were discovered before they recorded anything, but they thrust a covert FBI probe into public view. Street has denied any wrongdoing.

The plea agreement Ross signed does not require him to cooperate with federal authorities' other City Hall investigations - including probes related to city insurance contracts, minority businesses, and Philadelphia International Airport. Authorities are also investigating a related matter at Penn's Landing, prosecutors said.

Schwartzman said Ross has nothing of value to offer the FBI.

As Ross left the courthouse yesterday, an American flag in his lapel, he strode past reporters stone-faced.

Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 215-854-2658 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff photographer Tom Gralish contributed to this article.

ONLINE EXTRA

Read previous coverage and documents at http://go.philly.com/fbiprobe

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