Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

August 3- 9, 2006

Cover Story

The Fall Guy

Rick Mariano heads off to prison on Monday. You didn't think he'd go quietly, did you?

The Rick Mariano I know couldn't care less what people think about him. He fights to the death for his building-trades brethren and the people of the Lower Northeast. He threatens to knock his political enemies' fuckin' teeth out.

But this isn't the Rick Mariano I know.

This Rick Mariano, the one sitting atop a concrete slab covering a subway entrance, wants to explain himself, to do a little penance. A day before getting sentenced on corruption charges, he is humble and apologetic. Save for a few fiery moments railing against his enemies, this guy with tired eyes, slouched shoulders and a pair of bum knees doesn't have much brawl left in him.

Rick Mariano, First Grade
Photo By: Michael T. Regan

There's a reason this Rick Mariano called a few weeks earlier. "I want to see a story that tells the truth," he explains. "That I'm not the buffoon they've made me out to be."

But the fighter inside him also wants to share all the evidence he took to the U.S. Attorney in the hopes that it'd save him a few years in the clink.

So over the course of the past month, this Rick Mariano has spilled his guts. The story he has told is that of a man who made himself an easy target and knows what he did was wrong, but still feels used. It's a look into the life of a once-boisterous 51-year-old who's making peace with loneliness, who's resigned to his fate. It's a cautionary tale for politicians who think some rules can be bent.

"I should've been paying better attention," he says.

He's right.

Rick Mariano is the only person responsible for selling his City Council office to pay off his credit-card debt. Now, he knows he should've just taken out a second mortgage.

But as easy as it is to scoff at him, hold him up as an example of everything that's wrong with Philly politics and depersonalize him as yet another dirty politician, this Rick Mariano is also a victim. Maybe victim isn't the perfect word; easy mark will do.

This Rick Mariano just happened to be the guy who slipped up enough to let the government make him the example, the belt notch it needed to make a statement in a pay-to-play-busting era. Is he the only one? C'mon.

But since the feds want to hold him up as a deterrent to future municipal corruption, he will serve more jail time than any other city councilman in recent Philadelphia history — including the Beloffs and Tayouns of the world. This, even though there's no way to quantify whether a deterrent effect even exists.

In a nation he thought was big on forgiveness, this Rick Mariano — the father, husband, disgraced civil servant and everyman — knows he was wrong, and has said he's sorry. For that, not to mention the fact that he's a man before a legislator, he thinks he deserves a little sympathy.

He's right again.

Admit it: You saw this coming.

Ever since Mariano was first elected 7th District Councilman in 1995, he seemed to be right on the edge. At any time, he seemed one false step away from implosion.

But with the backing of powerful unions, which get out the votes they want, and the city's current mayor, who calls him "Cousin Rick," Mariano was free to be that every-guy politician who plays by rules he writes himself and says way too much of what's on his mind. He knew he'd never win over the people who didn't like him, but by taking care of those who backed and elected him, keeping the perks of re-election would never be an issue.

It was both his charm and his fatal flaw.

But let's not deconstruct the tenure of Councilman Richard T. Mariano hoping to find deep lessons. What's done is done. What's already been told has already been told. Need we talk about Cookiegate again?

Instead, it's time to write the political epitaph. If he could write it himself, it would read: Nobody ever questioned his dedication to his district, not even sworn enemies. He might have been stupid from time to time, even greedy in some folks' eyes, but his heart wasn't far from the right place. End of story.

The approach worked for a decade, too. But then along came the Bug. And the crackdown on political corruption in the city. And the federal investigators who easily figured out that Mariano had left the type of paper trail that translates into an airtight case.

Initially, he became the fish in a barrel, the first of many who would go down. But when nobody bigger was there to be had, he became the trophy buck, a bigger symbolic catch than Corey Kemp and his 10-year sentence — after all, the former city treasurer was appointed to his job, not an elected official.

As such, the lasting image of Councilman Mariano will be a man who stayed on the job through the indictment and the trial, a convict who could still collect a paycheck on the taxpayers' dimes. But in reality, his political career had been eviscerated nine months earlier, when he climbed to the top of City Hall.

It was there, after assuring everybody that he wasn't armed or suicidal, that the old Rick Mariano reached the end of his line. That day, he started the evolution toward the Rick Mariano who has made some semblance of peace with the fact that he must report for a 6 1/2-year prison sentence on Monday.

To hear Mariano tell it, he has no idea how he ended up in the City Hall observation tower, a move that set off a bloodlust frenzy of SWAT officers, media helicopters and rubberneckers wondering if they'd see a jumper at rush hour on a Friday. Sure, he knew the indictment was coming down. And yeah, he just learned his lawyer was abandoning him.

But was he about to jump his way to Bud Dwyer mortality? Nope. He was confused, unmoored, "walking around in a fog," and that's where he ended up. Within a few minutes, his cell phone rang. It was a friend of his brother Frank who happened to be a cop. "Look out the window," the man said. That's when Mariano, who says he was never as distraught as he was made out to be, saw the choppers, the cops in riot gear and the crowds gathering down below.

"They thought I was up there with guns and grenades, ready to take people out," recalls Mariano, who collects historic weapons. "I wasn't armed, and I wasn't suicidal. I just needed some time alone."

Mariano shares this story in mid-June as he sits on the couch of the Juniata Park house that was his home until he moved out a week later. Most of the packing is already done. The place feels empty. Even though his knees, those ever-problematic knees, are acting up again, he'd been trying to work some electrician shifts here and there. He'd sent his motorcycle over to his brother's and his gun collection had been put away for safe keeping. It might all be sold if the family needs money while he's away.

If he is a bit delusional in saying there's a chance he might not get any jail time come his July 6 sentencing, he's matter-of-fact when talking about the Tower.

As he throws a sleeveless T-shirt on over his tattoos and barrellike frame, he continues the story, laying out the yet-untold details about how Councilman Darrell Clarke tried to stop one-time Mariano booster and union boss John Dougherty from reaching the councilman on the rickety steps leading up to the observation deck. (Mariano says Clarke told Dougherty, "He's fucking up there because of you." Dougherty recalls that Clarke said, "He isn't feeling you right now." Clarke didn't return a call for comment.)

Whatever was said, Mariano remembers U.S. Rep. Bob Brady — in that vulnerable "High Drama" image that was memorialized on the front of the Daily News — whisking him over to Mayor Street's house. There, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson asked him to get a psychiatric evaluation as "a favor." Soon he was off to the Pennsylvania Hospital, and then a facility in Bryn Mawr where, in what has become a bit of Philadelphia's political folklore, he was admitted under the name Axl Rose.

Shaking his head and smirking, Mariano deadpans, "I don't know where the fuck that came from. Shoulda said Jack Benny or something."

Reliving that trying day and his time in the psych ward isn't why Mariano called, though. Old Ricky, Ricky the fighter, wants to go through the big binders of campaign-finance forms, checkbooks and grand-jury testimony transcripts. Pages of interest, the spots where Mariano says people used his campaign coffers to pay for stuff he couldn't account for, have colored tabs affixed to them.

Many people, including the ex-councilman himself, think Mariano is where he is today because the government wanted him to flip on Dougherty, Street, or a bigger fish. But Vince Fumo's e-mail banter aside, it seems as if the get-a-public-official campaign ended with Mariano.

After he was convicted in March, he wasn't getting squeezed anymore. In fact, he tried to do some squeezing himself by taking this very information to the U.S. Attorney's office, hoping his cooperation would bring leniency at sentencing.

It was a move that drove his trial attorney away and left many one-time friends angry that he was trying to sell them out; for many, it was a straw piled on after the final one. Once he started talking, gone were the days when the city's labor unions would host a fundraiser at a Phillies game for him. And gone were the days when Mariano would say, like he said during a 2002 interview, that "Doc doesn't tell me what to do, but I certainly listen when he talks."

Instead, Mariano offers a theory that former patrons used his campaign to launder money. If people would only look deeper, he says, they'd see it. Sure, he admits, much of it was his own fault. Like he's said: He did not pay as much attention to it as he should have. But, relaying what he told feds, he points to line after line — the $1607.01 that went to a South Philly private investigator he doesn't know; the $600 payments to a "special projects consultant" he says he never heard of — and claims it proves wrongdoing. There's only one problem: No law enforcement agency that reviewed the binder of information alleged any sort of criminal activity.

Rick Mariano, First Grade
Rick Mariano, First Grade

"Nothing [he] said was believed by the prosecution or FBI to be credible," explained Mariano's prosecutor, Asst. U.S. Attorney Michael Schwartz. "We did not find it credible and/or of sufficient value to investigate further."

Even though Mariano started snitching, the government sent him on his way without so much as a pat on the back. He says they told him he should have been more forthcoming during their investigation of him.

Too little, too late.

They would seek the steepest sentence possible: 10 years and a month.

"We'll always listen, but we don't accept things at face value," Schwartz said during a phone interview while vacationing in Vermont last week. "We have to be able to make use of it."

Explains Mariano, "They wanted the smoking gun, and I didn't have the smoking gun. It's all here, though."

Still, Mariano leafs through the papers. Sitting on the couch, he alternates between hoping this information could provide an unexpected escape hatch and shaking his head with the realization that he could have easily averted this entire thing.

Halfway into the 6-inch stack, he points to a line showing his campaign had spent $2,482.40 on watches to give away as gifts to supporters. He argues that the watches prove Dougherty, the potential mayoral candidate who has a longstanding relationship with the electrician-turned-councilman, used his campaign coffers to give gifts to friends. Dougherty, responding to the assertion that union money was laundered through Mariano's campaign coffers, starts his response by saying that he and Mariano are still friends who had been drifting apart for years, but that "we've always given him a safe landing."

Of course, Dougherty doesn't like the fact that Mariano has spoken ill of him to law enforcement officials, or the fact that subpoenas were served for union records relating to Mariano during the investigation. But sitting in the kitchen at IBEW's Spring Garden Street office, Dougherty says, unequivocally, that he's done absolutely nothing illegal. Even though Mariano told Dougherty at a recent union meeting that the feds are looking into that Nov. 29, 2003 purchase of watches, Dougherty says it was by the book. "If you're buying watches for your friends and family, that'd be wrong," he says, adding that Mariano signed the thank-you cards that accompanied the gifts, which went to supporters. (Mariano denies signing the cards.)

"I've told Rick that, 'If there's something you know that I've done wrong, please tell them if it can help you,'" says Dougherty, who thinks Mariano would have been better off had he taken a plea bargain rather than fighting it out in court. "Despite the fact that he's trying to kill me, I've never been upset. I know there just isn't anything there. I don't do everything by the textbook rules, and everything I do isn't politically correct, but I haven't broken any laws.

"When they're getting ready to close the doors behind you, and you're about to go to a place where you can't even choose your own toothpaste, you're just not thinking right."

There's certainly an argument to be made that Mariano is, if anything, confused these days. Though as gruffily affable as ever and quick with a salty quip, he switches topics as quickly as he starts them, sometimes contradicting one sentence before he's done the next. For instance, Mariano says he doesn't wish his fate on anybody ("I'm not saying Dougherty's a bad guy") and that he's not out to hurt anybody; the next moment he says that so many people have done worse than him, and that they should pay too.

And his professed hatred of the media certainly takes a peculiar form, whether it's a call to a reporter who'd already stung him with a nasty column, or his decision to stroll into the City Hall press room to give an impromptu post-conviction interview that ran on 1060 AM.

Though conflicted, he's also a sympathetic figure. He can make small talk as well as the guy on the next stool at the taproom, and has a penchant for remembering, in great detail, conversations from weeks ago.

With most of his old supporters gone, his trademarked feistiness has been significantly tempered, and if he has a trump card that can pull him out of this mess, he'd have undoubtedly pulled it by now. He may be flailing and swinging away, but somewhere deep down inside, he realizes the battle's probably lost.

"It is what it is," says Mariano when asked if he's prepared for life behind bars. "Nobody's my friend. My enemy's enemy, that's my friend now. I'm capable of losing everything I had because I have my wife, I have my family, I believe in God. I'm fine."

Mariano's been splitting his time between the Atlantic City condo he and his wife Susan have and his son's new place in Port Richmond. The day before he is to show up at the Federal Courthouse to find out how old he'll be when he walks free, he sits in the shadows of City Hall.

Atop the subway entrance at 15th Street and JFK, he sports his standard sleeveless gray T-shirt, a pair of shorts and a U.S. Army 82nd Airborne hat that goes well with his faded 82nd Airborne tattoo. He breaks a smile when somebody walks by and greets him as Councilman; he says people on the street have been doing that a lot, going out of their way to tell him they think he got screwed. It means a lot to him, so he thanks the people who still care and talks for a bit about his plans for the next day.

But this day, he's as humble as ever. Rather than getting worked up and spreading blame around, he looks down, shakes his head a lot and sighs at the end of most sentences. When he walks, it's not as an electrician with his chest puffed out; he steps gingerly, like a cane would make things a lot easier on him.

Mariano gets to talking about his career arc, how the unions got behind him and how the mayor could depend on him for a vote. He's told it sounds like a lot of people used him for their own gain.

"And I'm a fool for letting it happen," he agrees.

As he makes his way across JFK to keep a doctor's appointment, he turns back around with one more thing to say. The shift from brawler to almost-bawler is nearly complete.

"If I've learned anything in this life, it's that I don't want to see anybody get hurt. I don't wish this on anybody," he says. "Please, try to help."

The next morning, after having left a frustrated message bemoaning his predicament on my voicemail overnight, he would need all the help he could get.

With court scheduled for 9:30 a.m. — he asked that City Paper not run a story about these interviews until after sentencing so as not to inadvertently anger prosecutors or the judge — Mariano and family ducked into the building before 9 a.m. to avoid the gaggle of camera people anxious to film his most humiliating moments.

But donning a pinstriped suit, Mariano was all smiles, borderline jovial as he greeted people in the third-floor lobby. As his wife ushered character witnesses to a conference room to meet with Mariano's new attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, he joked that he wanted to grow his burgeoning goatee out so he could identify himself as Brian Hickey and send me off to prison instead. He thanked everybody for being there for him.

A friend sporting a black 82nd Airborne T-shirt made it clear that this faction's disdain for the media hadn't gone away. Referring to a recent Dan Gross Daily News item about Mariano being seen working along the Market-Frankford El line, he said, "They write 'Spotted on the El' instead of the 3,000 murders they had that day." It's a common refrain, the press as oppressors.

Soon, Mariano's youngest son, Vince, arrived with his pregnant fiancee, Sara, joining his older brother Rick, who works in the city's managing director's office. They, along with a couple dozen folks from the neighborhood, would be his support network when the U.S. Attorney's Office packed the courtroom with interns; it felt like a show of dark-suited force rather than a chance for the kids to learn something. By 11 a.m., the attorneys had dispensed with several objections, opening the floor to those who came to speak on Mariano's behalf.

"He's always been very loving and supportive in every aspect of my life, no matter what endeavor or circumstance," the older son said.

"He's always been there for me," said Mariano's younger brother Frank. "I've had a lot of problems and he always helped me."

Then came the wife who spoke in a broken voice as the courtroom sketch artist captured her blond locks just right.

"When all the cameras are off, there's something left behind. There's a family that has to deal with grief they never thought they'd have to deal with," said Susan, who Rick maintained would never be willing to offer quotes to the papers. "I want everybody to know there's a human side to this."

Like he predicted the night before, it clearly stung Mariano to watch his relatives vouch for him before a federal judge; he'd say as much when he made a final plea for mercy.

Photo By: Michael T. Regan

"I promised myself I wouldn't cry," he said. "I thought I was helping people. I was stupid. ... I don't blame the government, and I don't blame the press, even though they're never going to give me a fair shake and they'll have to live with that.

"Jail will do me no good. I could help people. I don't want to go to jail at this point in my life. But I'm totally responsible for what went on; I was just in the cloud for many, many months listening to people [I shouldn't have been listening to]."

At 11:36 a.m. on July 6, Rick Mariano was done talking. Just after noon, he was told he'd be going to federal prison for 78 months, the minimum end of the sentencing guidelines. An hour later, after he and his family had to fight their way through the cameras and microphones — "the animals," as he'll describe them on the cell — I told him it could've been a lot worse.

"It is what it is," he responded, before making plans to catch up later that afternoon.

The plans for the post-conviction interview would have to wait. I headed up to a corner bar in Port Richmond. But Mariano, with a tinge of paranoia, has taken to being secretive about his location, so a corner was as specific a meeting place as he'd offer. I waited for a call that wouldn't come. He later apologized, saying that he went to his son's home and just passed out, drained from all the activity.

After the 6 p.m. news led with a story about weather, Jim Gardner got to the Mariano sentencing. Though the ex-councilman was asleep right around the corner, not a person in the bar paid the story any mind.

In his home district, Rick Mariano was yesterday's news, today.

Mariano has spent a lot of the past few weeks dealing with doctors. He says he's not trying to avoid the inevitable; there's really something wrong with his knees and it had better be addressed before a prison doctor is his only hope. The countless doctors' appointments, to which he's been taking SEPTA, back him up.

So with his freedom slipping away with each day, the plan is to meet up at the municipal pool he's been hanging out at. "I go to the pool every day," he e-mails. "They don't know who I was [nor] do they care. ... You must bring your suit too. No cutoffs."

Refusing to identify what pool until the day of — "has to remain top secret" — he'll catch up in the morning. Of course, things aren't going smoothly with Mariano, from the busted cell phone that left him reliant on e-mail for more than a week to the broken hot-water heater at his kid's house the next day. ("Do you think there's a mission or a place for old broken-down ex-politicos to get a phone? Only kidding," he e-mails.)

The pool's out since he has to wait around for the plumber. Sitting in his son's living room with a nice-sized TV near a stack of mail that's been forwarded from his old house, he's not worried about Dougherty or public opinion. He's got another doctor's appointment this afternoon — he's worried he might need surgery, again — and needs someone to watch the house while he's out.

When the plumber arrives, Mariano walks out front to offer as much help moving the water heater inside as he can. Then, sitting on the steps in a basement with water on the floor, Mariano makes small talk, joking with the plumber about a job he recently had at a Center City condo. It was the building where one of the city's anchorpeople lives.

"Didn't even recognize me," Mariano jokes.

In a matter of days, such friendly banter will disappear. He'll be a number, not a name, at a federal correctional facility that, he hopes, will be close enough for his family to see him as regularly as possible. And, if you believe him despite the noticeable lack of bluster, he's as prepared as he's going to be.

"I'm not a tough guy, but I'm not a pussy either. I know I'm going to prison, but I don't want to be incarcerated for the next five, six years of my life," he says, sitting on a couch with a TV tray holding his laptop and a textbook titled Systematic Theology. "I got to be able to learn something from it. I don't want the date to come, but I do want the date to come so I can get it over with. ... My life would've been a lot different if I didn't decide to help people."

Of course, many would argue that Rick Mariano's life would've been a lot different if he didn't decide to help himself to money from businesses in his district. But what's done is done.

"I never wake up and miss being on Council," he says. "I don't want to get too spiritual here, but this whole experience has made me a whole lot more spiritual."

And so it is that this Rick Mariano's path has been set before him. On Monday, he'll know what it's like to lose his freedom. Maybe prison won't benefit him in the least and maybe the people of the 7th District won't be better off with their next councilperson. When it came to helping the people in his neighborhood, the old Rick Mariano wasn't so much a buffoon as he was a renegade, albeit one who ultimately stretched the rules too far.

But this humbled, spiritual Rick Mariano knows that man must atone for his sins. He concedes as much during multiple phone calls in the days leading up to his departure.

"It's not greed," he says of the less than $30,000 he was convicted of getting wrongfully. "It's not like I had a drug habit, went out drinking a lot, or travelled all over the place. I had a lot of bills from my first marriage, and from having a kid go to college. ... I was stupid."

So, thanks to stupidity, his wife of three years will get used to life without her husband for a while, and a father will become a grandfather behind bars.

Thanks to stupidity, Rick Mariano must now pay a steep price so the government can try to scare others from doing what he's done.

And that is what it is.


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