1st GOP trial opens in Pa. corruption scandal

AP News
Posted: Sep 26, 2011 7:14 PM
1st GOP trial opens in Pa. corruption scandal

Driven by a hunger to expand their power base, top Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives illegally used millions of dollars in taxpayers' money, employees and equipment to compile massive databases of information about state voters to boost the potency of GOP campaigns, the lead prosecutor said Monday as the corruption trial of three former officials opened.

The first trial of Republicans in a nearly five-year-old state investigation "is about powerful people taking the public's money and using it to expand and enhance their campaigns," Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina told the Dauphin County jury of six men and six women in his opening statement.

In separate appearances, defense attorneys said their clients are innocent. They said responsibility for any wrongdoing rests with former House Speaker John Perzel and his top aides, including three former House staffers who were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for cooperating with investigators from the state attorney general's office.

Fina singled out Perzel as the moving force behind an alleged scheme that initially tapped tax-paid computer specialists in the House GOP caucus but eventually widened to including the hiring _ mostly at public expense _ of out-of-state consultants to develop customized computer programs and provide data about voters' political preferences and lifestyles.

But Fina said the prosecution of the three defendants _ former Rep. Brett Feese, a one-time House GOP whip and former head of the House Republican Campaign Committee; Brian Preski, Perzel's former chief of staff; and former Feese aide Jill Seaman _ is justified by their own actions.

Perzel, who lost his Philadelphia House seat in last year's election, pleaded guilty to reduced charges last month. He and five other officials who have pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the case are all expected to testify, Fina said.

Fina said one consultant _ New Orleans-based GCR & Associates Inc. _ received a total of $9 million in public funds over several years for work that was largely tailored to political campaigns, including a program called "Candidate Connect" that Fina called "an A-to-Z guide for Republican candidates."

Another consultant, a Washington-area company called the Weiss Micromarketing Group, sought to analyze voters by scrutinizing such habits as their magazine subscriptions and favorite supermarkets. Based on that information, they were assigned to lifestyle groups with names like "The Affluentials," "Urban Cores" and "Country Comfort," Fina said.

The first prosecution witnesses are slated to testify Tuesday in a trial that county Judge Richard Lewis has said is expected to last about eight weeks.

Preski's lawyer, William Winning, asked the jurors to acquit his client on 54 charges against him, "not just some of the charges, not just a portion, but all of them."

"Brian is not a criminal. He's not a thief. He didn't steal any money from the taxpayers of Pennsylvania and he ... is not criminally responsible for what happened," Winning said.

Joshua Lock, Feese's lawyer, said the development of campaign databases was well under way before Feese ascended to House leadership positions and that he played a only a minor role in those discussions. Lock said he fears that jurors might be overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of evidence.

"It is hard to get your hands around," he said. "Sometimes it's just easy to assume that (a situation) is bad because it can be made to look bad."

Seaman's attorney, William Fetterhoff, said she performed secretarial duties exclusively and had no role in making decisions.

"She didn't have a voice. She had a pen and a notepad," Fetterhoff said, asserting that she broke no rules by not reporting possibly illegal campaign activity.

"No one, either legally or morally, is responsible for the independent actions taken by another person," he said.

Nicknamed "computergate," the case that is the focus of the trial stems from an investigation into alleged corruption in the Legislature. In addition to the 10 Republicans, 15 people connected to the House Democratic caucus have been charged, including former Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver, who is serving a state prison sentence after being convicted with two other defendants. Two other Democrats were acquitted, seven pleaded guilty and three are awaiting trial.