Perzel among 10 charged in Pa. legislative probe

AP News
Posted: Nov 13, 2009 8:29 AM

A former House speaker, an ex-lawmaker and eight aides Thursday became the latest _ and the first Republicans _ to be charged in a 3-year-old investigation into the diversion of public resources and employees to Pennsylvania legislative campaigns.

Attorney General Tom Corbett said individuals within the House GOP caucus spent millions of taxpayer dollars on computer technology to gain an upper hand in campaigns, and that investigators can prove that some high-ranking officials and their employees tried to cover up their part.

The charges of theft, conspiracy, conflict of interest and obstruction of justice, and an elaborately detailed grand jury report, were released one day before the defendants were scheduled to turn themselves in at a Dauphin County district judge's office.

The most prominent defendant is state Rep. John M. Perzel, R-Philadelphia, who served as speaker for about four years and as majority leader for nearly a decade before that.

Corbett described Perzel as "aggressive in the acquisition and retention of power" and accused him of punishing fellow Republicans who voted against him on legislation with "dirty tricks" that included anonymous, taxpayer-paid robocalls to tarnish their image among voters in their districts.

Perzel, charged with 82 counts, has been among his party's most prolific fundraisers and key campaign strategists for more than a decade. He relinquished the speakership in 2007 after Democrats regained control of the House, and he is currently the ranking Republican on the Urban Affairs Committee.

Perzel insisted on his innocence and questioned the motives of Corbett _ who is seeking the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination _ in a written statement released through his lawyer.

"It smacks of political opportunism at the expense of my reputation, and I am going to fight very aggressively to prove my innocence," Perzel said.

Also charged in the ongoing grand jury probe were Perzel's former chief of staff, Philadelphia attorney Brian Preski; and Brett Feese, a Perzel ally and former state representative from the Williamsport area who resigned last week as the House GOP caucus' chief counsel.

Prosecutors said Perzel and Preski led an illegal effort to marshal voter data mining, computer software and similar services to buttress GOP campaign efforts _ particularly Perzel's own. The grand jury calculated that the House Republican caucus spent more than $20 million between 2000 and 2007 on projects that, at least in part, were aimed at helping its candidates prevail.

Campaign work by some House GOP information technology employees became pervasive, and the presentment said the district operations that extend across the state became, in effect, "virtually a taxpayer funded, wholly owned campaign subsidiary of the House Republican Campaign Committee" from 2001-06.

Preski's lawyer, Hayes Hunt, said after a preliminary review of the charges that he was confident Preski will be exonerated of the 72 counts against him.

Corbett recounted a series of contempt hearings in which his agents sought a judge's help in getting House Republican leaders to produce requested information. Feese was accused of creating false, after-the-fact handwritten meeting notes in an effort to conceal his actions, Corbett said.

The grand jury concluded those notes "are demonstrably false and intentionally sought to mislead investigators."

A message seeking comment from Feese's lawyer, Josh Lock, was not immediately returned. Feese faces 62 counts.

Corbett said efforts to hide or fabricate evidence made the investigation significantly longer and more expensive.

"You're interfering with justice; you're interfering with people finding out with what truly happened," Corbett said.

The 188-page grand jury presentment includes a trove of detail, including allegations that state-owned computer equipment helped in the effort to win a seat vacated by Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Allegheny.

The night of that special election, one worker "discussed how truly 'weird' it was to be about to use all these public resources to fill the seat of a guy who just went to jail for 'illegal campaign activities,'" the grand jury said.

After watching a rally of NASCAR fans at the Capitol, Preski and Perzel supposedly dreamed up "the ID Verification System" to scan people's driver's licenses at such events to target them for future campaign purposes. It was abandoned after attendees were found to be reluctant to consent to have their licenses scanned.

The other defendants are John Zimmerman, the House Republicans' open records officer; former Perzel aides Paul Towhey, Samuel "Buzz" Stokes and Don McClintock; former Feese aides Al Bowman and Jill A. Seaman; and former House GOP technology office employee Eric Ruth. Zimmerman and Seaman, the only current caucus employees, were placed on unpaid leave Thursday, a spokesman said.

Seaman and Stokes declined to comment. Attempts to reach the others or their lawyers were not successful.

Sixteen months ago, Corbett's office charged a dozen people connected to the House Democratic caucus, including former Democratic Whip Michael Veon, with similar offenses. The central allegation in that case, however, is different, involving the alleged use of bonuses to fund campaign work with public funds.

At least five of the Democratic-linked defendants have signed guilty plea agreements, and trial for the remaining defendants is scheduled for December and January.

Corbett said the investigation was continuing but declined to say whether any current or former state House members have testified before the grand jury under a grant of immunity, as at least some current caucus employees have done.