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Defense says Fumo case ‘clash of interpretations’

PHILADELPHIA — The sweeping corruption case against a powerful Pennsylvania lawmaker boils down to “a clash of interpretations,” a defense lawyer said in his closing argument Tuesday.

During six days on the stand, Former Sen. Vincent Fumo, 65, conceded many of the facts charged in the $3.5 million fraud and obstruction case. He agreed that he let a nonprofit group run by aides pay for political polls, power tools, vehicles and other goods, and that his Senate staff and workers for the charity regularly performed personal and campaign favors for him.

But the Philadelphia Democrat denied any intent to defraud those institutions, or obstruct the five-year FBI probe.

“This nightmare began ... for Vince in early 2003,” lawyer Dennis Cogan said during a third day of defense closings. “His entire life has been under the powerful microscopic lens of the federal government.”

Jurors could begin deliberating as early as today, after the government gives its rebuttal and the judge instructs the jury. The panel remains collegial and attentive, even as the trial enters its fifth month.

“I’m exhausted,” Cogan admitted to jurors Tuesday. “It has been mentally and physically debilitating.”

He then mounted a topic-by-topic defense of the government’s case, which encompassed 82 witnesses and 1,300 exhibits.

The defense argues that Fumo underlings performed the favors on their own time; that the charity gave its hardworking founder mere “gifts” and “perks”; and that some mistakes were made, most pointedly by lawyers they say gave Fumo bad advice about document destruction.

Ultimately, Cogan said, “This is a clash of interpretations.”

Cogan also said it would be hard for Pennsylvania senators to victimize the Senate because state law gives them such broad deference over their staffs’ time and responsibilities. And he mocked government lawyers who described Fumo’s corruption as an “OPM extravaganza,” referring to Fumo’s abbreviation for “Other People’s Money.”

“There were no kickbacks. No bribes. No passing of cash under the table,” Cogan said.

Prosecutors, though, said the wealthy banker and lawyer so disliked spending his own money that he chose instead to raid the coffers of the Senate and nonprofit to fund an enviable lifestyle. In one small example, the lawmaker admitted that he had the Senate pay to FedEx hair spray to his waterfront Florida estate.

Addressing charges that Fumo destroyed e-mail evidence, Cogan said his client relied on advice from lawyers who allegedly said he could continue with “business as usual” at the Senate, despite the 2004 subpoena served on the nonprofit Citizens’ Alliance for Better Neighborhoods.

But lawyers Richard Sprague and Robert Scandone said Fumo did not give them all the facts. Once the closest of Fumo allies, both men testified for the government.

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