When you witness a crime, try to report it and end up facing two years in prison and a $250,000 fine, it’s safe to surmise that there’s something a little amiss with the system.
This baffling narrative may sound like the storyline of a low budget movie, but is an incident that actually happened in Philadelphia this month, with a few extra twists.
Dubbed by the Philly Post as “the hero Philly deserves”, on September 10, 30-year-old Rocco Martinez of Philadelphia pleaded guilty to extortion for, “Using interstate communications in connection with an effort to extort Philadelphia’s Parking Authority (PPA)”. (2)
With traffic wardens being held in a similar antagonistic esteem as the tax man, tele-sales reps and professional footballers, we can now understand why the Philly Post referred to Martinez as “the hero Philly deserves.”
While news of someone attempting to extort parking authorities may mark that person as some kind of working-class hero to locals that dislike the parking authority, this story is actually much more sinister than it appears.
Evidence of PPA Officer Accepting Gifts
According to an FBI press statement, on September 13, 2011, Rocco Martinez sent the PPA an email stating that he had footage of a PPA officer offering to remove a parking ticket in exchange for a gift.
While the FBI failed to provide details about what the gift was, according to the Philly Post the gift that the parking officer had requested in exchange for the removal of a parking ticket were bootleg DVDs. (1)
The FBI press release goes on to explain that the PPA’s Executive Director Vince Fenerty spoke to Martinez, who described the contents of the video. When Fenerty asked Martinez for a copy of the footage so that he could investigate the allegations, the unemployed father apparently refused unless he was given money for the video.
To make life even more difficult for the PPA Executive Director, Martinez said that several media outlets were interested in buying the video off of him. Refusing to give in to Martinez’s demands, Fenerty reportedly told Martinez that a government agency was unable to pay for evidence, for the simple reason being that it was illegal to do so. (2)
In a follow up conversation, which was apparently recorded by the FBI, the two men agreed to meet and Martinez brought the video and his laptop to Fenerty’s office. Unaware that the office was wired in preparation for the meeting (setup), Martinez showed the footage to the PPA director, stating that he had been “hounded” by the media for the video, and that it would easily get 150,000 hits an hour on YouTube. (1)
Martinez Accepts Responsibility
The story goes that Fenerty repeatedly told Martinez that it would be against the law for the PPA to pay for the evidence, but he was prepared to give him “something from his own pocket” in return for the video.
Martinez accepted $500 cash, handed the tape to Fenerty and said that he would delete it from the hard-drive on his computer.
The case was investigated by both the Philadelphia Office of Inspector General and the FBI, and at the hearing Martinez admitted to committing extortion. At the trial, Martinez reportedly admitted that at the time he had not realized that he was doing anything wrong, but understands it now.
“I know I did something wrong and I have to fess up to what I did wrong,” Martinez told the judge. (1)
Describing Martinez as someone who “wanted to be a whistle-blower”, Martinez’s lawyer, Federal Public Defender Mark Wilson, explained how the Philadelphia unemployed father thought he was exposing a corrupt traffic officer, and that he might get a reward for it. (1)
What About the Corrupt Officer?
While the media have lapped up this story, with everything from the Metro.us to CBS Local reporting the story, the irony of the case has been significantly under-emphasized.
An unemployed father, who was reportedly unaware that he was committing extortion, admits to attempting to extort the Philadelphia Parking Authority, because he thought he was exposing a corrupt officer, and that he might get a cash reward for it.
Instead, the whistle-blower ends up facing the possibility of two-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine. This, when the very crime he was reporting was in fact a form of extortion and bribery.
It also seems incongruous that the US insists that it is actively trying to encourage whistleblowers, by passing acts such as the Ethics in Government Act and the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, while using resources to punish a man for effectively trying to expose wrongdoing within an official federal organization.
Maybe the feds only support whistleblowing, so long as it doesn’t involve the reporting of crimes committed by a federal entity?
“Our city officials are not for sale,” Inspector General Amy L. Kurland said in statement about the case. “Those who try to extort or bribe them will be held accountable.” (1)
Shouldn’t the emphasis be on the city official who was also practising bribery in the first place?
As for the FBI getting involved, you’d think that they would have bigger fish to fry! How about getting to work on that Most Wanted list, for starters?