Co-defendant of Fattah has ties to former Pa. Gov. Rendell |
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Co-defendant of Fattah has ties to former Pa. Gov. Rendell

HARRISBURG — One of four people indicted with U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is known to Democrats statewide and politicians at the state Capitol: Herbert Vederman was a major contributor and fundraiser for former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Vederman, a deputy mayor when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia, is accused of paying $2,800 to Fattah’s son six days after Fattah wrote to President Obama in 2010 asking him to appoint Vederman as a U.S. ambassador.

Vederman, 69, of Palm Beach, Fla., was Rendell’s campaign finance chairman. Vederman is charged with bribery, bank fraud, falsification of records, money laundering and conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Vederman’s attorney, Catherine M. Recker, said he will plead not guilty.

“The government has cherry-picked facts to support its cynical view of friendship and wrongly labeled it bribery,” she said.

Vederman, Karen Nicholas, 57, of Williamstown, N.J., and Philadelphians Fattah, 58, Bonnie Bowser, 59, and Robert Brand, 69, are accused of several schemes, including misappropriating hundreds of thousands of federal, charitable and campaign dollars, prosecutors said.

If the charges are true, they represent “outright corruption,” not issues in a gray area, as has been the case with some Capitol corruption cases, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Delaware County. He cited some cases of using government staff for political work, and potential criminal charges for Attorney General Kathleen Kane that appear to be “abuse of power” allegations more than claims of traditional corruption.

Kane, a Democrat, is under investigation by Montgomery County’s district attorney. A statewide grand jury recommended charging Kane with perjury and obstruction of justice, concluding she leaked secret material to a newspaper to embarrass a political foe and covered up her actions. She has not been charged.

Corruption in Pennsylvania politics dates to the 19th century, but Rendell’s tenure as governor from 2003 to 2011 “seemed to open the floodgates” to corruption, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans.

Rendell was never accused of wrongdoing, and there were no major scandals in his administration.

Still, Miskin said, “Without a question, there was ‘pay-to-play’ under Rendell.” Philadelphia, he said, has a “culture where it’s OK to do this stuff.”

In a 2009 court case, a pharmaceutical company claimed large donations to Rendell’s 2006 campaign from a Houston plaintiff’s firm played a role in securing a no-bid contract, something Rendell and his staff denied. Republican lawmakers complained and demanded reforms.

Chuck Ardo, Rendell’s former press secretary, refuted Miskin’s contention of a pay-to-play culture during Rendell’s years in office.

“These accusations are stale,” Ardo said. “They’ve been around for years without any credible foundation and it’s time that they were put to rest.”

One of Rendell’s appointees to the Turnpike Commission, former CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross, pleaded guilty to conflict of interest in an alleged pay-to-play case at the agency. The case brought by Kane never went to trial; defense lawyers said prosecutors never established the quid pro quo allegations.

A Dauphin County Common Pleas Court judge sentenced Brimmeier, 67, in November to 60 months’ probation and fined him $2,500.

No-bid contracts hit an apparent high — at $1 billion — under Rendell, although an exact comparison to past years was impossible because of missing records, the Tribune-Review reported in March 2008.

Miskin said Vederman’s role as a large campaign contributor — giving Rendell $346,276 — and as an investor in Simple Brands may have played a role in Simple Brands getting a contract for machines that sold wine in grocery stores.

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind would think it’s a good idea. We’re still paying for that” aborted contract, Miskin said.

Vederman backed the short-lived venture that was touted as a way to allow Pennsylvania shoppers to buy wine with groceries. Montgomery County-based Simple Brands was the sole bidder for a state Liquor Control Board contract to provide wine-dispensing kiosks. The machines malfunctioned and the LCB suspended the program late in 2010 after less than six months. A state audit found the program lost $1.1 million and the kiosks were closed for good in September 2011.

In response, Simple Brands filed a lawsuit in the Board of Claims, a court-like body that hears state contract disputes, against the LCB, alleging the agency violated the deal and cost the company $81 million in production costs and lost revenue. The LCB contends the machines were unreliable.

Brad Bumsted and Gideon Bradshaw are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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