Fumo staffer's contract at issue Prosecutors allege the deal was a sham to allow him to do personal and political work for the ex-senator.

Posted: February 05, 2009

Phil Press was just a kid out of college and trying to learn about politics when he was hired by former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.

You could say he did all right for himself.

Fumo gave him a Senate contract paying $125 an hour that could have made Press the best-paid person in the state Capitol.

Exactly what Press did for that contract was the focus of a courtroom clash yesterday in Fumo's federal corruption trial when Press took the stand as the 20th defense witness.

The defense contends that Press did plenty of legislative work - more than enough to justify his pay. Fumo's lawyers pointed out that his first contract was capped at $42,000 a year, so he only needed to work at most seven hours a week to earn that amount.

The prosecution contends it was all a fraud.

"This contract is a sham, isn't it?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer asked.

"No, it's not," Press insisted.

Zauzmer contended that the astronomical hourly rate was a ploy to permit Press to bill for only a handful of hours doing work for the Senate while he was really being paid to serve mostly as a political operative for Fumo.

To drive home his point, Zauzmer did some math. He said that on an annualized basis, Press' hourly rate worked out to a salary of almost $250,000 - more than any legislator or official in Harrisburg.

"You're like the new rookie - and you're getting paid like Donovan McNabb," Zauzmer said sarcastically.

"I disagree," Press replied evenly.

Press' testimony was important because Fumo, 65, a once-powerful Democrat in Harrisburg and in Philadelphia, is charged with defrauding the Senate by getting employees and contractors to do personal and political-campaign work on state time. Fumo left the Senate at the end of November.

A fresh-faced man who looks younger than his 31 years, Press told the jury he was a political junkie who volunteered to work on the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis at age 10.

After graduating from Fordham University, Press went to work for Bob Casey Jr.'s gubernatorial campaign. His job - following Casey's rival for the Democratic nomination, Ed Rendell, in the hope of videotaping him making a gaffe - won him some notoriety, and he caught Fumo's eye.

After Rendell won that race, Press joined Fumo's staff as a legislative assistant and was paid $32,000 a year.

But after a brief period, Fumo made Press into an independent contractor, with the initial contract for $42,000. Zauzmer pointed out that the hike in total pay just about covered the cost of Press' benefits package.

Under questioning by Dennis J. Cogan, Fumo's lead defense lawyer, Press talked about the legislative work he did: writing letters to constituents, attending civic meetings as Fumo's representative, fielding questions from the media, researching issues.

As for political work, he said he did that as a volunteer after first putting in lots of hours - quite a bit more than the minimum required - on the public's business.

Gov. Rendell, who is scheduled to testify Monday as a defense witness, said yesterday he believed he was called to testify about the work ethic of the longtime legislator and his staff.

"They worked their hearts out here. They work a minimum of 10-hour days and at budget time 20-hour days," Rendell told reporters during an unrelated Capitol news conference.

Press, who was not charged with any crime, is one of a handful of Senate contractors who, prosecutors contend, did a lot of work on Fumo's personal or campaign matters - and not much for the state.

Zauzmer went after Press hard during cross-examination.

He grilled him about the language in his contract in its initial years. The contracts specified that Press would work on issues involving the Internet, on "e-commerce."

Press said that as a liberal arts major, he wasn't especially geeky. In fact, he hadn't involved himself with e-commerce, he acknowledged.

"This was all made up," Zauzmer declared.

Replied Press: "It was inaccurate."

Press said the contract had been drafted by Howard Cain, a Fumo political operative. Press' error, he said, was failing to read the contract carefully. "I made a mistake," he said.

By the time of his last contract, taxpayers were paying Press at the rate of $175 an hour.

Zauzmer demanded that Press explain why he had been paid at so high an hourly rate.

"Counselor," Press replied, "I don't know."

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Mario Cattabiani contributed to this article.

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