April 1724, 1997
Flying With Fumo
What's the deal with the senator and Sterling Heliport?
By Scott Farmelant
First in a series.
Jerry Schmidt looked outside his window that December day in 1991 and knew it wasn't a good day for flying. Not in a helicopter. Not with winds gusting through Philadelphia at 50 mph. Not to taxi a couple of Christmas shoppers back from New York City.
So Schmidt picked up the phone and called Sen. Vince Fumo at his Manhattan hotel room. Schmidt told the state senator that his return flight to Philly was off. Fumo and his wife Jane would have to take the train.
Fumo, however, had a different plan.
"The senator went ballistic," said Schmidt, then a pilot and operations director for Sterling Helicopter Services. "He didn't want to take the train home. He wanted to be picked up. He didn't care what the weather was like."
Five minutes later, Schmidt's phone rang. The caller was Jack Brown, Sterling's owner and a regular donor to Fumo's Senate campaigns. Brown had just spoken with Fumo. Now Brown had a message for Schmidt: fly to New York and pick up the Fumos, high winds or not. Or you're fired.
Two hours later, the Fumos and their holiday gifts were flying south with Schmidt at the helm.
Among the rich and elite who fly in and out of the Penn's Landing Heliport, the exclusive home of Sterling Helicopter, Vince Fumo is the best-known customer. Pilots and mechanics at Sterling know Fumo by the dozens of trips the senator has made with the helicopter company.
Seven pilots told City Paper how they ferried Fumo to places like Harrisburg, the Jersey Shore, Washington and New York since the mid-1980s. Just last year, Fumo filmed a campaign commercial on Sterling's landing pad. There, a grinning senator hopped out of a chopper while his son filmed the scene.
That Fumo flies with Sterling is not a big story. Not in itself. Charter flights are expensive (the minimum price for a Sterling helicopter is $550 per hour, a $25 to $75 landing fee, and a $65-per-hour waiting charge) but Fumo is a rich man thanks to his professional status as banker, lawyer and politician.
No, the real story behind Fumo's frequent flying with Sterling centers on the senator's role in securing $1.7 million of public funds, money which Penn's Landing Corporation used to build a new heliport for Sterling in 1995. That money stemmed from a $2 million Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) grant a gift, if you will. And while Fumo abstained from the official vote, the senator was the DRPA commissioner who sponsored the appropriation in December 1993, according to six former DRPA board members who spoke with City Paper.
Beyond that, City Paper has obtained internal documents from Sterling Helicopter about four Fumo flights with that company. According to the records, which are not publicly available, Sterling recorded three of those flights under a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) code reserved for sightseeing, photography use, or surveying.
National experts and area helicopter pilots said the code Sterling used to describe the three Fumo flights has another function. They said that is the way helicopter companies document free flights.
"If [a customer] was paying money for a flight, it would have to come under [a different code]," said Rhett Slater, executive director/legal counsel for the American Helicopter Society in Alexandria, VA.
The code used by Sterling for the three Fumo flights "would tell me that someone flew that man for free," added Slater. "They didn't charge him for" the flights.
"Under [the code Sterling used], you cannot fly for hire or compensation," said Joe Corrao, an FAA regulations expert based in Alexandria, VA.
"If a passenger is not paying for [a flight], that code is" the one Sterling used, said pilot Bob Hoban, now with Horsham Airways.
An FAA spokesperson confirmed the experts' and pilots' reports.
A chartered flight "does not come under" the code Sterling used, said Arlene Salac.
So a few pieces of paper show that Sterling listed three Fumo flights in the same manner that helicopter companies keep track of free trips. Does that matter? Since Fumo is a public official, since the senator sponsored the grant to Penn's Landing Corporation which gave Sterling a publicly funded building, and since several ex-DRPA commissioners reported that Fumo did not disclose anything about his relationship with Sterling Helicopter and owner Jack Brown when he proposed the expenditure on Dec. 15, 1993, the answer is yes.
"We did Vince's list [of projects] including the heliport," said G. Davis Greene, a former Pennsylvania commissioner, about the December 1993 DRPA board meeting (Greene's last). "All I know is a list was brought in by Vince and the list was done."
"The Philadelphia expenditures were sponsored by Senator Fumo," added William Dickey, a Republican from New Jersey.
Both men stressed that Fumo said nothing about his relationship with Sterling when proposing the Penn's Landing expenditure. In fact, none of the former or current DRPA commissioners contacted by City Paper could recall any mention of the heliport while the spending measure was discussed. Neither could DRPA spokesman Joe Diemer, an attendee at the session.
"That particular request was even more odd than the others," recalled Michael Brennan, an ex-DRPA commissioner from New Jersey. "Not only did we not know what it was going to be used for, there was no specified recipient."
"All of those expenditures came to us at the last minute without adequate explanations," commented Dickey. "That's why I voted against them."
Discussion or not, a dozen DRPA commissioners voted to donate $2 million of public funds cash gathered $2 at a time from drivers who go across the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman and Tacony-Palmyra bridges to the Penn's Landing Corporation. The commissioners approved the grant without knowing the possible benefits or pitfalls of the unnamed project which ultimately ate up that money. In short, few if any of the commissioners knew who stood to gain from the board's largesse.
The reasons behind the Penn's Landing expenditure as outlined in the Inquirer's"River of Money" series were purely political. New Jersey voters had just voted Gov. Jim Florio out of office in November. That meant the DRPA board's Democratic majority would shrink or evaporate once Republican Christie Todd Whitman took office in January 1994. Thus the December 1993 DRPA board meeting was a final chance for commissioners to use any of the agency's massive $80 million surplus on pet projects.
The commissioners did not waste the opportunity, going on a $50 million spending spree in less than an hour's time.
Less than two years later, Sterling Helicopter was the proud owner of a $1.7 million facelift, in large part because of their frequent flying customer, Vince Fumo. Subsequently, Fumo took at least three flights which Sterling did not list as charter trips.
Given reports of Fumo's frequent flying, the Sterling flight documents and the senator's role in Sterling's taxpayer-funded office/hangar, City Paper faxed Fumo a list of nine questions about his role in the facility's makeover and his flights aboard Sterling's helicopters.
The senator's office replied clearly and without hesitation.
"No," said Gary Tuma, Fumo's spokesman, when asked if the senator would respond to City Paper's questions.
"I have nothing more to say," said Tuma, before hanging up the phone.
Unlike commercial and charter airplane flights, the FAA does not keep any records of the flights which helicopter companies provide to the public. When a helicopter goes up and comes down, it does not leave a paper trail in its wake.
Accordingly, there is no way to know how often Fumo flew with Sterling before and after the DRPA paid for the new heliport. And there is no way to know whether Fumo paid for all of his flights with Sterling. The only way to find out short of an investigation is for Fumo or Sterling to release documents in their possession.
State campaign finance records do show that Fumo's campaign used Sterling. According to the records, Fumo's Senate campaigns in 1991 and 1992 paid Sterling a total of $4,468 for "transportation services" on three separate occasions.
City Paper found no other public records of payments to Sterling on Fumo's behalf since 1990, including State Senate travel expense records (only available for dates after July 1, 1993).
The pilots who spoke with City Paper said Fumo took more than four flights with Sterling. They said that Fumo flew roughly twice a month on Sterling for several years.
George Huey, who worked for Sterling between August 1984 and December 1991, recalled flying Fumo several times. Huey, now chief pilot with Horsham Valley Airways, specifically recalled several flights where he ferried Fumo and Jack Brown Sterling's owner together for trips to Brown's summer home at Long Beach Island.
Bob Hoban, a pilot with Sterling between 1983 and 1991, said he ferried Fumo on one occasion with Jack Brown on a trip to Harrisburg. Hoban also noted that he saw Fumo use Sterling's services on a "regular" basis during his tenure with the helicopter company.
Al Kasakowski, a former pilot at Sterling, said he piloted Fumo "probably" two times per month between January to June 1992.
Schmidt, who described himself as "Fumo's personal pilot" between 1989 and March 1993, recalled flying the senator on a regular basis to Harrisburg, the Jersey Shore and Manhattan.
"Not only did I fly him, I spent several hours in his [Harrisburg] office waiting to fly him back," said Schmidt. "A car would always be waiting to take us to and from the airport."
Harry Ettenger, a pilot best-known for his work with Chopper 6, WPVI's aerial camera, flew for Sterling from May 1992 through November. Ettenger said he witnessed Fumo's flights out of Sterling on a regular basis.
George Geib, a pilot who worked for Sterling between October 1993 and May 1995, said he has flown Fumo, as indicated by one record obtained by City Paper.
Geib, who was reluctant to discuss the subject, said, "I did fly the guy."
Beyond those pilots, sources reported that Paul Larsen and Joe Paruszewski, pilots currently working for Sterling, flew Fumo to and from Harrisburg on various occasions in 1994. (In the Sterling records obtained by City Paper, Paruszewski is listed as the pilot on three flights.)
Schmidt noted that Fumo used Sterling's helicopters for business and pleasure.
"When I flew to Harrisburg, I thought every flight was official business," said Schmidt. "That was my understanding. [But] during the summer, he seemed to use the aircraft more than other months. On Fridays, I would take him down to the shore and on Mondays, I would pick him up."
The documents City Paper obtained show that on Sept. 7, 1994, Sterling flew Fumo from South Delaware Avenue to Harrisburg Airport, then returned. Sterling did not list the flight as a charter.
On Dec. 20, 1994, Sterling flew Fumo on the same route. Again, Sterling did not list the flight as a charter.
A third flight record for Feb. 9, 1996, did not list a destination. But the document shows that Fumo flew with Jack Brown. The records also show that Sterling listed one Fumo flight, an Aug. 11, 1994, round-trip flight to Harrisburg, as a charter.
Schmidt, the helicopter company's director of operations for four years, noted that Sterling never allowed him to write up billing invoices for the senator's trips.
"Susan [Davolos] always handled the invoices," said Schmidt, noting that he "always" wrote up Fumo's flights as charters. "I only wrote up the flight sheets. Every flight for Fumo, the [flight] sheets were turned in. Whether Susan invoiced him or not... I can't say."
Susan Davolos is vice president of Sterling Helicopter and the daughter of Jack Brown.
Huey added another point about flying with Fumo. Sterling's company policy dictated formal attire for pilots whenever they flew charters. The rules were strict, said Huey. Shirts and ties, nothing less.
"But when we flew Fumo, we were allowed to go in jeans... whatever we were wearing," said Huey.
After speaking with the pilots, City Paper tried to get answers, taking the flight documents to Davolos in mid-March. When questioned about Fumo's helicopter flights at Sterling's headquarters, Davolos ordered City Paper from the premises.
"We have not seen [Fumo] for a long time," said Davolos. "We have nothing to hide. Everything's been above board. There's nothing to hide."
City Paper asked Davolos one more question before departing. Why were three Fumo trips not listed as charter flights?
"Talk to Vince Fumo about that," said Davolos. "You go talk to Vince Fumo."
City Paper did try to speak with Fumo, even appealing to the senator's attorney for an interview after his spokesman rejected earlier requests. In a March 14 letter to Richard Sprague, City Paper stressed its desire "to report both sides of this story accurately, fairly and with all due diligence. The senator's viewpoint is very important to this article."City Paper then asked Sprague to arrange the interview.
Sprague, whose firm also serves as a "special counsel" for the DRPA, replied on March 21.
"From information available to me, it appears that you are bent on attempting to target Senator Fumo and to maliciously cause harm to him," Sprague wrote. "You remind me of a writer who tried to do the same with me and for whose conduct the Philadelphia Inquirer was not only found liable but punished by a significant monetary award against them. I do not see any good purpose to be accomplished by acceding your request."
The silence extended beyond Fumo. Jack Brown is out of the country for "several months," according to secretary Shanna Gattuso, and cannot be reached for comment. Sources reported that John Brown, Jack's son and president of Penn Trucking & Warehouse (also owned by Jack Brown), was familiar with Fumo's flights. But John Brown said he doesn't know anything.
"I don't run the heliport, I run the trucking company," John Brown said. "I really want to help you. If I could, I would."
When questioned, Paruszewski said the records City Paper obtained were stolen and threatened to sue.
"Let me tell you something, those records are stolen records," Paruszewski snapped. "If you persist in using those records, you'll be named in a lawsuit."
When City Paper asked Paruszewski about four flights the pilot reportedly did for Fumo in 1994 and 1996 including two listed as non-charter flights Sterling's current director of operations clammed up.
"I'm not going to answer anything," said Paruszewski.
From the mid-1980s until 1995, Sterling operated out of a single hangar, an office and some trailers. As a Sterling regular, Fumo knew that Sterling's heliport needed help. Jack Brown said as much in a November 1995 Inquirer article, part of that paper's "River of Money" series on patronage and questionable use of funds at the DRPA.
"After talking to all the politicians and city officials, Fumo was the first one... maybe a couple of years ago, to say, 'Yeah, maybe it might be a good idea,'" the Inquirer quoted Brown in regards to a refurbished heliport.
In addition, City Councilman Jim Kenney often Fumo's stand-in at DRPA board meetings as well as the senator's campaign treasurer and former chief of staff told the Inquirer that Fumo "did express to me his desire to see [the heliport] continue at the same location and thrive."
And so it was that the DRPA came to vote on the matter twice in 1993: first on June 16 and later on Dec. 15. According to a resolution from the June meeting, the board agreed to spend $350,000 "for planning, feasibility, and design work" on five projects, including Penn's Landing Heliport. According to minutes of the meeting, Fumo abstained from the vote without comment.
Six months later, at the infamous DRPA board meeting, the board approved $2 million for "Penn's Landing Improvement Grants." According to DRPA spokesman Diemer, that grant funded Sterling's $1.7 million restoration.
Minutes from the December meeting show Fumo abstained from the matter without comment. Rev. Nicholas Rashford, president of St. Joseph's University, also abstained after commenting that it was "unnecessary" to rush the $50 million in spending without any discussion. Brennan and Dickey voted against the expense.
DRPA commissioners who can recall the proceedings of December 1993 say the meeting moved quickly.
"Vince walked in with his list of projects," said Greene, a former board member. "And it was all over. Our process went out the window."
Brennan, who is a Democrat, said the grant bothered him because without discussion, there was no way to tell whether the funds would be used for economic development as mandated by the agency's bylaws.
"It was just $2 million that was to be used for something," Brennan sighed.
Given the lack of information surrounding the expense and Fumo's relationship with Sterling owner Jack Brown (who donated $16,250 to the Fumo campaigns between 1988 and 1995), City Paper asked several ex-DRPA commissioners whether Fumo should have explained his relationship with Sterling before the board voted. None would respond on the record.
"I really don't want to go there," said Brennan. "I don't want to tell somebody else what they should have done."
Another board member, who spoke on terms of anonymity, said Fumo should have told the board everything.
"There should have been full disclosure to the board," said the commissioner. "[But] the DRPA made grants to groups who took the money and made their own decisions. That is not supposed to happen. It's bridge toll money."
While some current and former DRPA board members will discuss Sterling Helicopter, others won't. State Sen. Joseph Loeper, the Republican leader, refused comment before City Paper posed a question. Rashford had nothing to say. Former Congressman Lucien Blackwell said, "I don't know, it wasn't mine" when asked about the sponsor of Sterling's grant. The same went for Teresa Porrini, a former commissioner in New Jersey.
Ex-New Jersey Commissioner Howard Moon professed total ignorance regarding the $1.7 million which he helped give to Sterling.
"Sterling Helicopter?" asked Moon. "I don't know anything about that. I don't recall anything about that."
(Current commissioners Barbara Hafer and Joe DiRenzo did not return calls. City Paper could not reach Commissioner Catherine Baker-Knoll or ex-commissioners Robert Innocenzi and Max Pievsky.)
Peter Burke, an ex-commissioner, said he would never tell Fumo that he should have disclosed his relationship with Sterling. Indeed, Burke saw no need.
"In my dealings with Vince... I found him to be very careful," Burke said. "He was always very aware of what the rules were. I would be surprised if he didn't" follow the rules.
Greene said the DRPA must investigate Fumo's relationship with Sterling.
The need for an investigation "seems to me self-evident," Greene said. "The situation sounds highly irregular."
If there is an inquiry, the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission will not conduct it. Vince Dopko, the agency's chief counsel, reported that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court exempted the DRPA, a bi-state agency, from those laws in an earlier case.
DRPA spokesman Diemer said the agency's bylaws require the board of commissioners to conduct investigations regarding ethical matters.
"We are the enforcement agency," reported Diemer. The spokesman also noted that the DRPA's "appointing authorities" Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman "have some authority in these matters." (Ridge spokesman Tim Reeves said the governor reserves the right to remove DRPA commissioners as he sees fit.)
Dickey argued that the DRPA is incapable of looking into any links between Sterling's new facility and Fumo's flights.
"The board has an obligation to enforce its own ethics code," said Dickey. "But the board is largely influenced by political considerations. [And] the Pennsylvania commissioners are not capable" of investigating Fumo and Sterling.
Next week: How Penn's Landing Corporation built a heliport for one of its board members.