PHILADELPHIA --A federal jury acquitted a Pennsylvania senator Wednesday of charges he spent $6,000 in campaign money as a bribe to help him win a Democratic Party ward leadership election in 2011.
The acquittal of Sen. Larry Farnese came after five days of testimony. Farnese wiped his eyes with a handkerchief after hearing the verdict and told reporters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Philadelphia that the system he always has believed in worked.
"And today, what was proved was what I always knew and what the people in this district always knew: that I was innocent," Farnese said, according to WHYY-FM.
Farnese, 48, of Philadelphia, has been in office since 2009. The two men who held the seat before Farnese both went to prison for corruption.
Farnese's lawyers contended the Justice Department had overreached in trying to regulate Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee and criminalize behavior that had been legal in Pennsylvania politics for decades, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Prosecutors had argued Farnese bribed a city committeewoman to help the campaign that eventually made him Philadelphia's eighth ward leader. Ward leaders can make powerful friends, and Farnese wanted to be one very badly, prosecutors told the jury.
The $6,000 was spent on the college study abroad program of the committeewoman's daughter. He was charged with mail fraud, wire fraud and other offenses. The committeewoman, Ellen Chapman, was charged with the same crimes and acquitted in the same trial.
Farnese's political action committee, Friends of Farnese, reported the $6,000 payment to Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, on July 8, 2011. The ward election was in December of that year.
Farnese's lawyers countered that the payment was a "good deed" for a deserving constituent and entirely legal. They argued the pair never discussed the payment as a bribe. It was made in plain sight, paid with a check and disclosed on Farnese's campaign finance filing, his lawyers told the jury. A criminal would not have paid a bribe with a check or kept allegedly incriminating emails about illegal agreements, like Farnese did, his lawyers argued.
Chapman withdrew her support for Farnese's chief rival for the ward leader post after he agreed to make the payment. In testimony, that rival, Stephen Huntington, said Chapman told him she wouldn't have supported Farnese without the financial help, the Inquirer reported.
Farnese's lawyers said Farnese won the election unanimously, and it made no sense to bribe just one of dozens of Eighth Ward committee members to swing the election. In any case, Farnese already had the support to win the election, they argued.
Farnese ultimately won the ward election unanimously. By then, Huntington had dropped out of the race and Chapman did not vote because she was no longer on the committee.