HARRISBURG -- Two staffers of powerful state Sen. Vincent Fumo were accused yesterday of destroying e-mail evidence sought by the FBI in an investigation of the senator.
Leonard P. Luchko and Mark Eister were charged with obstruction of justice in the FBI investigation of whether Mr. Fumo, D-Philadelphia, used his position to demand and obtain contributions to a charity run by his aides.
"This was a deliberate, systematic and ultimately successful effort to interfere with a federal investigation," U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan said.
Mr. Fumo has not been charged and was not named in the affidavit, but state officials widely acknowledged yesterday that the court documents clearly referred to the senator, who has represented South Philadelphia since 1978.
A Fumo aide who was granted immunity told a grand jury the senator knew about the e-mail purges and may have ordered them, according to a court affidavit signed by FBI Special Agent Vicki Humphreys.
In a statement last evening, Mr. Fumo's attorney, Richard A. Sprague, characterized the affidavit as one-sided and inaccurate.
"The government has made it clear that it will go to any length to get Senator Fumo," he wrote. "These two individuals arrested today are unfortunately victims of the process of attempting to get the senator. Their trials will prove that."
Mr. Luchko, 49, of Collingdale, outside Philadelphia, and Mr. Eister, 36, of Camp Hill in suburban Harrisburg, are accused of destroying all traces of e-mail messages on computers in Mr. Fumo's offices in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, on his home computer, on staffers' handheld Blackberry devices and on four Senate computers used by the charity Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. The purges allegedly occurred after the staffers learned the FBI was investigating the senator's involvement in the Philadelphia charity, authorities said yesterday.
Another Fumo staffer helped the FBI obtain some of those messages, including a 2004 memo Mr. Luchko wrote to his supervisor saying, "Boss is driving us ALL nuts with this FBI madness. ... Life just got so complicated it isn't even funny and the killer is I can't tell anyone about it," according to the affidavit.
Mr. Eister and Mr. Luchko were arrested at their homes at about 6 a.m. yesterday and arraigned in Philadelphia. They were released without bail and ordered not to talk to Fumo staffers or other potential witnesses in the case.
If convicted, they face sentences of up to five years. Additional charges are possible, officials said.
Mr. Eister's attorney, Brian McMonagle, said, "It's confusing how they would expect this guy who knows nothing about criminality to have obstructed justice. He's literally the computer geek in the operation. He's a computer tech who had been cleansing e-mails and providing security for these communications long before any investigation ever began, long before the FBI even began contemplating an investigation."
Mr. McMonagle said everyone in the office was aware of the FBI investigation but no one ever told them to handle e-mail differently than they had in the past.
"It was never Mark's intention to commit any crime and he believes in the innocence of the senator," Mr. McMonagle said.
Mr. Luchko's attorney, James C. Schwartzman, could not be reached yesterday.
Many of the deleted e-mail messages were believed pertinent to an investigation into whether Mr. Fumo engaged in extortion and whether the charity spent donated funds to benefit him personally and politically, according to the affidavit.
"A central question in this investigation is the extent of control which the senator exercises over the organization in order to direct its expenses," the affidavit says.
As part of the larger probe, federal prosecutors subpoenaed PECO energy company for details about the utility's $17 million donation to the Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. Mr. Fumo had opposed, then supported, PECO's push for utility deregulation.
The FBI also is probing Mr. Fumo's dealings with other companies.
Despite the computer purges, the FBI was able to retrieve several key messages that, the affidavit says, show charity money was spent on political polls and on programs that would help garner support for politicians Mr. Fumo supported.
In one case, according to court documents, the senator directed an aide to use the charity's funds to buy Philadelphia a new police surveillance van and then make it look as if the vehicle had been donated by a public official who needed good publicity. The court papers did not identify the official.
Another e-mail shows that charity funds were used to pursue a lawsuit against a political rival.
The FBI says it has been investigating the charity's spending since 2003.
As minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Fumo is one of Harrisburg's most powerful Democrats.Associated Press
Sen. Vincent Fumo
Tracie Mauriello can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-2141.