Ex-lawmaker convicted in Pa. corruption scandal

AP News

11/8/2011 6:11:34 PM - AP News

A once-powerful former Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker was convicted Tuesday in a corruption case focusing on the illegal use of millions of taxpayer dollars and state employees for political campaign work.

Former Rep. Brett Feese, a onetime House Republican Campaign Committee chairman, was found guilty of all 40 charges against him. Prosecutors said Feese was involved in hiring out-of-state consultants with public money and diverting legislative employees to work on voter-information databases and other high-tech tools to help elect more Republicans to the Legislature.

Jill Seaman, Feese's former legislative aide and co-defendant, was convicted on identical charges in the scandal, which also ensnared a former House speaker.

The lead prosecutor, Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina, said he hopes the unanimous verdicts would have an impact in the Legislature.

"I sure hope the message is getting delivered over there _ that they're there for the best interest of the people, and the best interest of the people only, and they should not be using the money of the people for personal efforts," Fina said.

Feese's lawyer said an appeal is inevitable, while Seaman's attorney did not rule out that possibility.

"There are issues which are appropriate for review by the Superior Court. I'm sure we'll be pursuing relief in that form in due course," said Feese's attorney, Joshua Lock.

"I'm not guilty," Feese said to reporters as he left the courthouse with his wife and lawyer.

The jury of six men and six women reached their verdicts after deliberating for a week following five weeks of testimony.

Feese stared downward as the jury foreman responded "guilty" to each of the 40 charges. Seaman slumped in her chair.

Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis tentatively set sentencing for Jan. 9.

Two jurors said the unanimous convictions reflected the strength of the state's case.

Lanthus Whiteside, 41, said the jurors worked together well and reviewed the evidence meticulously. The Harrisburg resident told The Associated Press that jurors took their time to make sure they asked the right questions and made the right decisions.

"It's a lot of evidence, a lot of pieces of paper," said Whiteside, who works for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Fellow juror Megan Buller, 23, of Harrisburg, said understanding the complex case was a steep learning curve for her. She and Whiteside said no one suggested that either defendant was innocent.

The prosecutors "had strong witnesses and strong evidence to back up their case," Buller said.

Feese, 57, who served six terms in the House representing his Lycoming County district, and Seaman, 59, of Dauphin, were the first Republicans to stand trial among 25 people whom the state attorney general's office has arrested since it began investigating the Legislature in early 2007, while Republican Gov. Tom Corbett was the attorney general.

Seven other Republican defendants had pleaded guilty and await sentencing, including former House Speaker John Perzel, the longtime political power broker from Philadelphia who prosecutors describe as the ringleader in the conspiracy that came to be nicknamed "computergate."

A 10th GOP defendant, former Perzel aide John Zimmerman, is being prosecuted separately.

Most of the testimony came from prosecution witnesses who either were granted immunity from prosecution or had agreed to plea bargains that required their cooperation in exchange for being allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges.

Feese is a former Lycoming County district attorney.

After Perzel tapped him as chairman of the House GOP campaign committee in 2002, his political fortune soared _ from becoming caucus chairman in 2002, to majority whip in 2003 to chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in 2004. In 2007, after he left the Legislature and as the investigation was heating up, he was hired as the caucus' chief counsel.

Feese and Seaman each were convicted on 38 counts of conspiracy, theft and conflict of interest, plus one count each of hindering apprehension and obstruction.

The charges were divided into separate sets for each of seven alleged criminal episodes: three involving the use of different groups of caucus employees for campaign work; three involving interaction with consultants GCR, Washington, D.C.-based Aristotle Inc. and Washington state-based Labels & Lists Inc.; and one involving an alleged attempt to falsify evidence to mislead investigators about the defendants' involvement.

Fifteen people connected to the House Democratic caucus also were arrested on charges involving the illegal use of state employees and other taxpayer resources for a wide range of political purposes.

Former Rep. Mike Veon, a one-time House Democratic whip from Beaver County, is serving a state prison sentence after being convicted with two other defendants in March 2010. Two Democrats were acquitted and seven others pleaded guilty.

Awaiting separate trials are state Rep. Bill DeWeese of Greene County, who was Democratic floor leader when Veon was the whip, and former Rep. Steve Stetler of York County who headed the House Democrats' campaign effort before he left the Legislature in 2006. Sharon Rodavich, a former aide in DeWeese's district office, is his co-defendant.