If 2 wealthy senators did break the law, the question is why

Some experts don't agree with the prosecutors' answer: Pa.'s Vincent J. Fumo and N.J.'s Wayne R. Bryant are greedy.

Posted: April 09, 2007

The region's two recently indicted state senators were - and are - rich and powerful men.

The personal wealth of Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a banker, lawyer and licensed electrician, has been estimated at $20 million, and his stock and options from the bank his grandfather founded are worth an additional $13 million.

Meanwhile, New Jersey Sen. Wayne R. Bryant made roughly $643,000 in each of the last three years from his public jobs, his law firm, and a position at Susquehanna Bank, prosecutors said. Even discounting the three no-show state jobs Bryant was accused of holding, he still cleared a half-million a year.

Yet federal prosecutors have accused both of using their influence - Bryant and Fumo were the ranking Democrats on their state budget committees - to illegally line their own pockets.

In one of the most striking portions of the Fumo indictment, prosecutors quoted the senator as describing his philosophy of spending "OPM" - other people's money.

Those of more modest means might be tempted to ask: Why would such men feel the need to cut corners?

Was it greed?

Arrogance?

Ignorance?

"I don't know. They're all great questions," said Bob Goldman, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia who now defends white-collar cases. "Maybe you need Tony Soprano's psychiatrist."

Fumo, indicted in February, has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney has called the prosecution politically motivated. Bryant, indicted last month, is expected to plead not guilty at a hearing in Trenton today. Neither Bryant nor his attorney have commented on the charges.

Although prosecutors don't have to prove a motive to win their cases, juries prefer explanations for defendants' behavior.

In the Fumo and Bryant cases, prosecutors have stuck to the simplest explanation: greed.

Christopher Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, described Bryant's "insatiable desire for more public money to put in his own pocket."

Patrick L. Meehan, the U.S. attorney for Pennsylvania, said Fumo "felt entitled to reach deeply into the pockets" of taxpayers.

Typical white-collar prosecutions don't involve wealthy defendants. When someone from a rarified tax bracket gets snared - whether Michael Milken or Martha Stewart - the public takes notice, often to wonder why.

"We coined the term "illusion of invulnerability,' " said Henry Pontell, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and coauthor of the book Profit Without Honor: White-Collar Crime and the Looting of America. "It's basically this feeling that they can do whatever they want and they'll never be found out . . . They're playing on a cultural element of entitlement that says you do what's best for you."

Goldman, now a partner with the law firm Fox Rothschild, said white-collar criminals often rationalize their misdeeds - particularly powerful people who might believe they deserve extra perks.

"You might not even have the thought process of 'I'm committing a crime,' " he said. "Everybody really needs to have a reality check at times and ask why they're engaged in certain activities.

"It's actually a great measurement for you," Goldman added. "If you don't want to read about it in the paper the next morning, maybe that's something you don't want to be involved in."

In fact, in a memo quoted in the Fumo indictment, the senator said the source of the money given to a charity he controlled should be kept quiet.

"The Inquirer will go absolutely BALLISTIC if they ever really find out about the . . . money," he wrote.

Bill DeStefano, a defense attorney who won the only acquittal in the recent Philadelphia City Hall corruption trials, said greed was the root of all economic crimes.

He said the accusations against Bryant - of trading his influence for no-show jobs - are straightforward, but many of the charges against Fumo, particularly those alleging that he put public employees to work on his personal tasks, were "iffy."

"It's sort of a matter of opinion. If my secretary takes my shirts to the cleaners because I'm too busy . . . did I cheat my law firm?" he asked. "People who are important and whose time is valuable have a certain amount of discretion."

In more nakedly criminal circles, one motive of theft has been described as the thrill of "getting over" on someone. In the book Wise Guy, former mob associate Henry Hill described boss Paulie Vario taking his wife out on the town and paying for everything with stolen credit cards - despite his own considerable wealth.

"The real thrill of the night for Paulie, his biggest pleasure, was that he was robbing someone and getting away with it."

But Christie, who agreed to speak generally about his experiences prosecuting corruption and fraud, said political figures don't commit crimes for the thrill. In some parts of New Jersey, he said, a culture of corruption has taken root.

"They believe it's just their turn," he said. "They learned from the people that came before them."

Most of them, Christie said, don't believe they'll get caught, despite his office's record of more than 100 convictions in the last five years.

"What I've observed over time is that, the longer these people are in public office, the more arrogant they get and the more entitled they get," he said. "And the more entitled they get, it leads them to do stupid things.

"There's no other explanation," he said. "There's no rational explanation."


Contact staff writer Troy Graham

at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

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