Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s newest appointee to his inner circle, chief of staff Christian Marrone, rose to Washington power player via the streets of Pennsylvania’s pay-to-play politics.
Mr. Marrone acknowledged in court that as a Pennsylvania legislative aide he oversaw the private renovation of his politician boss’s mansion — all while drawing paychecks from taxpayers, according to court records reviewed by The Washington Times.
Mr. Marrone was never charged, but prosecutors estimated that he spent 80 percent of his first year and a half in his state job doing the private work of state Sen. Vince Fumo, the records show.
The job afforded him a steady salary right out of college and the opportunity to court and eventually marry Mr. Fumo’s daughter. It also allowed him to help land his father a patronage job in the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission that lasted 10 years, records show.
Ultimately, father and son were ensnared as cooperating witnesses in corruption trials, testifying about pay-to-play schemes and diversion of tax dollars.
Christian Marrone agreed to become a central witness in the 2008 federal trial that sent his father-in-law, Mr. Fumo, to prison for four years on 137 corruption charges.
In court, Mr. Marrone blamed the culture of south Philadelphia politics for his actions, saying he was young and didn’t know any better at the time. But he also acknowledged that he was so concerned about the activities in Mr. Fumo’s office that he kept a stockpile of documents for his own “protection” because he expected one day to land in court.
Now, a dozen years after he parted with Mr. Fumo and six years after his federal criminal trial testimony, he is poised to serve as chief of staff to Mr. Johnson, who oversees Homeland Security’s roughly $60 billion of security money each year and possesses some of the country’s most sensitive secrets about terrorism threats.
How Mr. Marrone’s appointment made it through the vetting process for sensitive senior jobs could spur questions about Mr. Johnson’s judgment and the rigors of the Obama administration’s review process, observers told The Times.
“From a security standpoint, this would be a problem for me,” said I.C. Smith, a former FBI counterintelligence agent, adding that concerns about Mr. Marrone “looking the other way” during his years with Mr. Fumo would raise flags in a background check.
“The fact that he testified in 2008, they would have to explain the circumstances of his testimony, and that would pull back the whole scab of his employment at the time. Perhaps he was young and naive and that’s an excuse, but it’s not a very good excuse.”
Homeland Security Department officials declined to disclose how Mr. Marrone’s court admissions figured into the vetting process, but said they were confident about his personal ethics and his ability to handle his position.
“During his time in government, Mr. Marrone has won the confidence of two secretaries — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson — under two administrations,” Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard said in an emailed statement.
“During their time together at the Department of Defense, Secretary Johnson was impressed with Mr. Marrone’s integrity and management abilities, and he will be a strong addition to the management team at DHS.”
Mr. Marrone declined repeated requests to talk on the record for this article. But in his 2008 court testimony, he acknowledged that he collected a taxpayer salary as a Pennsylvania legislative aide while spending much of his job supervising Mr. Fumo’s personal home construction project.
“If you didn’t stay on top of them, it wouldn’t get done and it wouldn’t get done to the senator’s satisfaction,” Mr. Marrone testified about the role he played in supervising the contractors. Emails he kept from his time working for Mr. Fumo were introduced in court, providing dramatic evidence of the corruption that pervaded the state senator’s office.
“That was the culture of the office,” Mr. Marrone testified. “You did what Vince told you to do. There were no boundaries.”
Victim or opportunist?
In the end, Mr. Marrone insisted to jurors, he was just a “victim of Vince” who chose to cooperate with federal prosecutors. There is no evidence that he ever required immunity to testify.
His self-portrayal as a victim, however, leaves some veteran watchers of Pennsylvania politics skeptical.
“Marrone was brought up in the hard-knocks school of Vince Fumo South Philly politics,” said Randall Miller, an American studies professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia who has followed Mr. Marrone’s career trajectory. “Under Vince, he learned how to be tough and get what he wanted. Those skills no doubt helped him climb the rungs in Washington. He has a track record of not only playing with the big boys, but playing well.”
Mr. Marrone left Pennsylvania politics behind before the Fumo ethics scandal became public and landed a job at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration. He was serving in that job — and past his first federal vetting process — when the full extent of his history in Pennsylvania emerged publicly in federal court. He remains married to Mr. Fumo’s daughter, though the couple are estranged from her father.
In 2011, Mr. Marrone took a job at the federal contractor 3M and later landed with the aerospace industry trade group AIA, two entities with interests in his new employer, the Homeland Security Department.
Friends from the Philadelphia area who know Mr. Marrone — including some who went to prison long ago — said he has matured and would react differently now. Others who know him from his time in Washington praise his management style.
Mr. Gates, the former defense secretary, referred to Mr. Marrone by name in his memoir, calling him loyal, a good team member and one of the “key members of the core front office staff.”
“You need to have people who understand how bureaucracy works and who know how to build consensus, and I think Christian has done that in the Defense Department and why Secretary Johnson wants him as his chief of staff,” said Ryan McCarthy, former special assistant to the defense secretary, who worked with Mr. Marrone at the Pentagon.
Other friends familiar with his time in Philadelphia say Mr. Marrone’s past must be viewed in the context of Philadelphia’s political culture, where the line between public service and private gain was blurred for decades.
“The appearance of it not being kosher never entered anybody’s mind until the last several years,” said Jim Tayoun, Mr. Marrone’s godfather who served on the Philadelphia City Council before serving a stint in prison over corruption charges in the 1990s. He called Mr. Marrone a “straight arrow.”
From intern to power broker
Starting in 1997, fresh out of Penn State University, where he played football for the iconic coach Joe Paterno, Mr. Marrone scored an internship with Mr. Fumo that eventually led to a full-time job.
In the more than five years he worked for Mr. Fumo, Mr. Marrone kept emails between him and his boss. After leaving the job, he held on to the emails, which would serve as key evidence in convicting his father-in-law and sending him to prison for four years.
“They were just there for my protection,” he told a prosecutor during the Fumo trial in 2008, explaining why he kept the documents. “I was afraid that this day would come and that I’d be sitting here.”
Although Mr. Marrone called Mr. Fumo an “evil individual” while testifying in court, working for him in the early years proved personally beneficial. According to a report by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mr. Fumo asked Mr. Marrone to watch over his daughter Nicole when he learned that Mr. Marrone and she would be attending law school at Temple University together.
Mr. Marrone followed his boss’s orders, and a relationship developed. He married Nicole in the spring of 2003.
Mr. Marrone’s immediate family also benefited through his connection with Mr. Fumo. Mr. Marrone’s father was appointed to a prominent job as the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s director of operations. Last summer, the elder Mr. Marrone testified under a grant of immunity that his former position was a patronage job given to him by Mr. Fumo, as he helped the prosecution make its case that those on the turnpike commission were trading in contracts for political contributions. The elder Mr. Marrone, who was never charged, also testified that his son helped get him the job, according to press reports of the court case last year.
Mr. Marrone’s work for Mr. Fumo wasn’t always glamorous, but it did give him an inside look into how the senator built and ran his political empire, said former Philadelphia City Council member Frank DiCicco, a Fumo ally.
Mr. Fumo at the time of Mr. Marrone’s employment was using a nonprofit, Citizens’ Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, as a personal piggy bank to help fund his home renovation and fuel his political machine, prosecutors said.
Mr. Fumo reportedly funneled a $17 million donation from Peco Energy to the nonprofit, using his leverage as head of the Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee to shake down the utility, prosecutors alleged. Mr. Fumo didn’t serve time for the secret funds, only for the way he spent them.
Mr. Marrone, who testified that he never dealt with invoices for the mansion, held jobs in Mr. Fumo’s office, as well as at the nonprofit, according to the indictment. His only salary, however, came from the state.
“Christian knew he was working for a nonprofit whose funds weren’t being used for that purpose. My God, he was the guy going to the senator’s house to oversee how all those funds were being used,” Mr. DiCicco said. “When pressure from the feds started coming down, to save his butt, he went the other way. He knew enough about everything to save himself. He kept the emails and the documents and had the proof he needed to make a deal. Otherwise, he’d be serving jail time.”
In his testimony, Mr. Marrone saw things differently, suggesting he was a victim of his political tutor.
“I treated [Mr. Fumo] as a mentor. I looked up to him, never thinking once he was doing something that would in any way, shape or form harm me,” Mr. Marrone told jurors.
Mr. Marrone’s first assignment in Mr. Fumo’s office was hardly unusual. He had to draw up a big map of all the civic groups in the senator’s district. Mr. Fumo was pleased with the work. Within weeks, Mr. Marrone testified, Mr. Fumo assigned him to oversee long-delayed renovation work on his mansion.
Mr. Marrone testified that he knew little about construction, but he dove into the task. He walked through the house making punch lists, overseeing the parade of contractors: electrical, heating, concrete, elevator, carpentry, painting, plumbing and cabinetry, to name just a few. Mr. Marrone’s uncle and cousin pitched in on the tile work.
Mr. Marrone parted ways with Mr. Fumo in 2002 after his wife, Nicole, had a personal falling-out with her father. He moved from the city to Philadelphia’s suburban Montgomery County and became a Republican, looking to start anew. Through his Philadelphia connections, he landed a job as an assistant prosecutor for Bruce Castor, who was district attorney at the time. Mr. Castor was running in the Republican primary against Tom Corbett, who is now governor, to win the party’s nomination for state attorney general.
According to Mr. Castor’s testimony, Mr. Marrone quickly approached him and told him he could use Mr. Fumo’s connections to help Mr. Castor shore up support outside the county, arrange meetings with campaign donors and secure political endorsements. Mr. Castor gladly took the help, and Mr. Marrone was elevated into campaign meetings and operations.
When the tide started to turn on Mr. Castor, and he lost the Republican Party organization’s endorsement, Mr. Marrone jumped ship and actively started campaigning for Mr. Corbett, all the while being employed by Mr. Castor, according to court testimony. After Mr. Castor officially lost the nomination, he fired Mr. Marrone.
“He didn’t come to me and say, ‘I changed my mind,’” Mr. Castor testified. “He was sneaky.”
Climbing the party leadership, he also met Bob Asher, a Pennsylvania Republican power broker and another Corbett supporter. Mr. Marrone transitioned from a Castor ex-employee to legal counsel to the Pennsylvania for Victory 2004 Presidential Inaugural Commission, thus starting his career in the Bush-Cheney administration.
Mr. Asher, who served time in prison in the 1980s for convictions of perjury, racketeering and bribery in connection with a state contract, was appointed as a Pennsylvania committeeman for the Republican National Committee in 1998. He was named to that position by Gov. Tom Ridge, who eventually became the first secretary of the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
“I have the highest regard for the kid,” Mr. Asher said of Mr. Marrone. “He’s advanced on his ability and percolated up through the ranks.”
Mr. Asher said he thought Mr. Marrone would react differently if he saw the sorts of things going on in DHS that he witnessed in Mr. Fumo’s office. He said Mr. Marrone had matured over the years. Back then, he said, staff aides were expected to do whatever they were told.
It’s true that Philadelphia politics didn’t exactly encourage whistleblowing, said Terry Madonna, who followed Mr. Fumo’s career as director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.
“You’re looking at a state not unlike New York, New Jersey and Illinois for pay-to-play politics,” Mr. Madonna said. “But it’s pretty fundamental that you aren’t supposed to work privately when you’re supposed to be on the state payroll, and he was on the state payroll.”
“Ambition got a hold of him,” he said of Mr. Marrone.