Pa. assembly corruption probe nears critical phase

AP News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2009 12:36 PM

A widening criminal investigation accuses some of Pennsylvania's most powerful state lawmakers of illegally converting the public work force and the Legislature's thick bankroll into potent re-election tools.

The attorney general's three-year-old probe has already resulted in 25 arrests, the most recent coming last week, when the third-ranking Democrat in the state House and a member of the governor's cabinet were charged.

It was not long ago that defendants John Perzel, Bill DeWeese, Mike Veon, Brett Feese and Steve Stetler would have been at or near the top of any list of Pennsylvania's most powerful political figures.

Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, was speaker of the House, while DeWeese and Veon, both from western Pennsylvania, held the two highest ranking positions in the House Democratic caucus.

As recently as four years ago, the three men's fingerprints would have been on virtually any significant deal in Harrisburg, while Feese, a Republican from Lycoming County, and Stetler, a York Democrat, oversaw their respective caucus' campaign efforts.

Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican who hopes to become governor-elect in 2010, has been on a crusade to stamp out what he portrays as a corrupt culture that has systematically siphoned off taxpayer-paid employees and equipment intended for General Assembly work.

The diversion of public employees for campaigning has surfaced repeatedly in recent years at state Capitols across the country, including Florida, Minnesota, Missouri and South Carolina.

In Wisconsin, a caucus scandal resulted in the criminal convictions of five high-ranking lawmakers, and just last week a Hawaii state representative agreed to pay a fine to settle a complaint she violated a state law that prohibits legislators from using state time, equipment or facilities for campaigning.

In Pennsylvania, it is illegal for anyone to gain private monetary advantage from holding public office, and the charges involved in the investigation so far have included theft, obstruction, conflict of interest and conspiracy.

Corbett's public corruption unit has hauled dozens _ if not hundreds _ of people before secret grand juries, seized boxes of material from state Capitol offices, pored over mountains of e-mails and other records and provided immunity to an undisclosed number of witnesses.

But state prosecutors have lost the only case to have gone to trial so far, and Corbett's gubernatorial ambitions may rise or fall on the results of the most important trial _ the one involving Veon that is set to begin in a Harrisburg courtroom next month.

The investigation began nearly three years ago, when The Patriot-News of Harrisburg first reported that millions in bonuses had been quietly doled out to legislative employees _ money that state prosecutors say was often a reward for illegal campaign activity.

Veon and 11 other people connected to the House Democratic caucus were the first to be arrested, in July 2008. In the last six weeks prosecutors have also charged Perzel, Feese and eight others with ties to the House Republican caucus as well as DeWeese, Stetler and a DeWeese aide.

Nearly all the defendants are either current or former legislators, or former House employees. According to grand jury reports, many legislative employees considered campaign work part of their state jobs, although they also seemed to know to keep it quiet.

Investigators say millions of dollars' worth of computer services were billed to the state treasury and then used to track voters and campaign contributors. Capitol phones, copiers and fax machines were routinely commandeered to become the machinery of incumbent politicians trying to win elections, they say.

"You have the paranoid people like myself who have been yelling for years that this has been going on, but most Pennsylvanians didn't realize how ingrained it was," said Gene Stilp, a former Democratic House aide and failed candidate for lieutenant governor who has made state government reform his personal quest.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said the House Democrats' scheme was more labor-intensive _ they also handed out more money in bonuses than their GOP counterparts _ while the House Republicans relied more on technology.

The trial of Veon and others that is set to begin Jan. 19 at the county courthouse in Harrisburg may have serious implications for the 2010 governor's race.

The pressure on Corbett's team tightened earlier this month, when former state Rep. Sean Ramaley, a Beaver County Democrat, was acquitted of all charges in the only case to go to trial so far.

Veon defense lawyer Dan Raynak said the Ramaley verdict reinforces his argument that the evidence is lacking in all of the prosecutions. Raynak repeated a theme that Corbett's critics and political opponents have raised repeatedly _ that Corbett's gubernatorial aspirations have colored his handling of the investigation.

"I think he's using innocent people and ruining their lives, simply to be able to use it for political gain," Raynak said.

Corbett also had the embarrassment of a district judge throwing out some charges against Veon and another defendant after a marathon eight-hour preliminary hearing in May. Those charges were pared down and the case refiled, but Corbett still has a lot riding on the January trials.

"If they're acquitted instead of convicted, that could be a major obstacle to Corbett's attempt to get the Republican nomination," said Wilkes University political scientist Thomas Baldino.

The issue could take on even greater importance if Corbett is the nominee in the fall. That's when independents _ who Baldino said tend to be more swayed by matters of government corruption _ will be able to vote.