Eye of the storm

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The clout state Sen. Vince Fumo has in his district — and throughout the city — is arguably unsurpassed. The minority in a Republican-dominated Senate for years, the Democratic powerhouse has funneled $8 billion into the Philadelphia-metropolitan area while in office, according to his attorney.

Outside of Harrisburg, South Philly is his home base and turf, where the politician co-founded the First District Environmental Defense Fund in 1991, now known as Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, 1131-1137 Wharton St. The nonprofit’s mission has increasingly broadened over the years — as has the government’s interest in Fumo’s involvement with the organization.

Since Citizens Alliance is such an area staple (its array of trash trucks and street sweepers, for example, are probably as synonymous with South Philly as double parking), locals are wondering what will become of the organization amid Fumo’s recent indictment.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office released a 267-page indictment last week, charging the senator with 139 counts of fraud, tax offenses and obstruction of justice. In part, Fumo allegedly defrauded both the Senate and Citizens Alliance — the latter in excess of $1 million the nonprofit could have used to further carry out its mission, according to the indictment.

Fumo and Ruth Arnao, the organization’s former executive director who left her post in June, were processed and arraigned Feb. 7. Both pleaded not guilty.

The nonprofit has not been charged and is not alleged to have done anything wrong. Rich Manieri, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, could not comment if the indictment might have any affects on the organization’s operations, or if it would shut down temporarily or permanently.

The indictment details how Fumo allegedly used the organization’s funds for his personal and political benefit including: About $118,000 spent on cars used by Fumo, drivers at his local office and Arnao, who was charged with 45 counts; the senator spending more than $75,000 for personal supplies placed in his home; and the organization allegedly forking over $600,000 to refurbish and furnish Fumo’s Tasker Street office.

Prior to being indicted, the senator made an unprecedented speech on the Senate floor Feb. 5, in which he touted Citizens Alliance’s accomplishments, one of them being the revival of Passyunk Avenue, though the strip is not specifically mentioned. He then "temporarily" left his post as Democratic chairman for the Appropriations Committee.

Noting Citizens Alliance acquired Fumo’s local office, his lawyer, Richard Sprague, said at a news conference last week the $600,000 was used to "enhance the very property that Citizens owned."

Releasing an indictment and charging the senator with nearly 140 counts, Sprague said, was a way to "get the public infuriated." During the news conference, he lifted up Fumo’s bound indictment and then compared it to the eight-page and 65-page indictments of "Ted" Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, and Enron CEO/Chairman Kenneth Lay, respectively.

Reliable Floor Covering Co., 1600 E. Passyunk Ave., has been a fixture on the avenue for 30 years. Owners Maria and Bob (who declined to give their last name) didn’t know what to make of the allegations.

"How can we form an opinion if we don’t know him personally?" Bob asked. "We don’t know his books."

One thing they have noticed is the ever-present Citizens Alliance vehicles picking up trash on a daily basis. After finding a dead cat near the property, Maria immediately called the organization. The animal was removed in five minutes.

The couple attributes the nonprofit’s work to contributing to the avenue’s improvement.

"When you see an organization that has been [responsible] for rectifying [problems] or will supply the things the city doesn’t do, it’s nice for businesses and homeowners that there is something that will continue improving the area," Bob said.

Without Citizens Alliance’s efforts, the couple is unsure how the avenue would appear today.

Expanding on its initial mission to clean streets, remove graffiti and trash, and trim trees, Citizens Alliance has reached further: It supplies grants to neighborhood groups; furnishes bulletproof vests, command stations and bicycles to police; and rehabs local neighborhoods.

According to the indictment, Fumo obtained an agreement with PECO Energy in 1997 that led to a donation to the nonprofit of $17 million over a seven-year period. The entity, the indictment stated, then supported the establishment of the local Christopher Columbus Charter School and Independence Charter School. Calls to Columbus’ principal, Rosemary Dougherty, were not returned by press time.

According to the indictment, after receiving money from PECO, Citizens Alliance created for-profit subsidiaries (the indictment lists six) — one being Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Inc., which owns and redevelops properties around that strip with assistance from Citizens Alliance.

According to federal law, nonprofits may own subsidiaries, but accounts of such entities must be separate. In Citizens Alliance’s case, accounts were separate, but Arnao, under Fumo’s direction, transferred money between and among accounts depending on where it was needed, according to the indictment.

Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Inc. is responsible for acquiring, rehabbing and maintaining 14 properties on the strip. Anticipated as a way to rejuvenate the area, more than half of the project’s sites sit dormant with design plans attached to storefront windows. Citizens Alliance spokesman Ken Snyder said tenants are currently being sought out.

"This [indictment] has been a distraction and has slowed down some of the progress on some of our top priorities, such as revitalizing Passyunk Avenue," Snyder said, "but we remain in operation and are dedicated to our core mission of improving neighborhoods."

When asked if residents should expect an overall decline in the organization’s services, Snyder said, "It’s our hope that we’ll continue to provide the same level of services people have come to expect and appreciate."

Matthew Rader, executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, declined to comment for this article.

Like some people, Joe Ricci, manager of DeChristopher Bros. Cemetery Memorials, 1647 E. Passyunk Ave., is unsure of what to make of Fumo’s alleged spending habits with Citizens Alliance money. "Maybe he wanted that money to rebuild [the area] so people would come here," he said inside his establishment Monday.

In any case, Ricci knows exactly what will happen if any party, including Citizens Alliance itself, closed the organization’s doors: "If they do that, then they’re going to ruin the avenue."

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.