Longest-service Pennsylvania lawmaker goes on trial

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 23, 2012 10:18 PM
Longest-service Pennsylvania lawmaker goes on trial

By Mark Shade

HARRISBURG, Penn (Reuters) - The corruption trial of Pennsylvania's longest-serving state lawmaker, H. William DeWeese, opened on Monday with prosecutors describing him as "a common thief with uncommon access to other people's money."

DeWeese, 61, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives and a Democrat from rural Greene County, faces multiple charges including criminal conspiracy, conflict of interest and theft. His trial could last two weeks.

Prosecutors accuse the lawmaker, who has held office for 36 years, of using public funds and public employees to win election. Doing any campaigning while on the public clock is against the law in Pennsylvania.

"This case isn't a 'who done it?' and this is case isn't even a 'why done it?' It is about the use of power to keep power and to be re-elected," state prosecutor Kenneth Burns told the seven-woman, five-man jury in Dauphin County Court.

Burns said DeWeese ordered "systemic, extensive, detailed" campaign work that, in some cases, took more than half of a state employee's time.

But DeWeese's defense attorney said that the prosecution's case is trumped up and "petty."

"This is not a case of conspiracy of gun-wielding robbers with lookouts," said William Costopoulos, DeWeese's defense attorney, who has been called "Wild Bill" because of his flamboyance and ability to win high-profile cases.

Costopoulos told the jury DeWeese came from an honest family, was a U.S. Marine and, as a lawmaker, did all he could to help coal miners and improve access to prescription drugs for the elderly.

If he had a fault, Costopoulos said DeWeese was too trusting of those who worked for and with him and never believed employees would do any campaigning while working their public jobs.

"Bill DeWeese trusted everyone, especially those who were closest to him. He was so trusting many of his friends deemed him naïve," Costopoulos said.

The case against DeWeese stems from a larger investigation, dubbed "Bonusgate," that has so far ensnared 10 House Democratic caucus members and nine House Republican caucus members, including former Republican House Speaker John Perzel of Philadelphia. Perzel has pleaded guilty to charges and awaits sentencing.

DeWeese was to have been tried with his former district office staffer Sharon Rodavich. But Rodavich pleaded guilty last week during jury selection for this trial and will testify against DeWeese.

(Editing by Greg McCune)