Once-influential Pennsylvania legislator sentenced to prison

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2012 7:03 PM
Once-influential Pennsylvania legislator sentenced to prison

By Dave Warner

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - An influential former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives was sentenced to up to five years in prison on Wednesday after admitting that he used public funds for a computerized election system to help Republicans win elections.

John Perzel, who represented a House district in northeastern Philadelphia, pleaded guilty in August to eight of 82 original charges he faced in what became known as "Computergate."

Perzel, 62, was accused of being the architect behind a scheme that spent more than $10 million of taxpayer money on sophisticated computer systems to track voters and voting patterns.

First elected to the House in 1978, Perzel served in Republican leadership positions, including majority leader, for years and rose to the position of speaker in 2003.

The scandal broke in 2009, when then-Attorney General Tom Corbett revealed a grand jury probe and the accusations.

At the time Corbett, a Republican who is now the state's governor, said: "Contrary to prior practices as speaker, Perzel retained a virtually unprecedented degree of power over the resources of the House Republican Caucus, including funding for various caucus departments such as Research, District Operations, Printing and Information and Technology."

Corbett said then that the scheme was hatched after Perzel won re-election by a mere 100 votes in 2000 and never again wanted to go through such a tight race.

That experience, along with Perzel's interest in technology, prompted the development of high-tech computer systems with such names as Republican Information Technology, he said.

Four of Perzel's associates also were sentenced on Wednesday. One was his former chief of staff, Brian Preski, 46, who was ordered to spend two to four in prison and pay $1 million in restitution.

Along with sentencing Perzel to two-and-a-half to five years in prison, Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Lewis ordered him to pay $1 million in restitution as well.

Another of Pennsylvania's longest-serving and most influential lawmakers, Representative H. William DeWeese was convicted last month of theft and criminal conspiracy stemming from his use of state employees to campaign for him for free.

An 18-term Democrat, DeWeese faces the possibility of 38 years in prison when he is sentenced in April. His case stems from a larger scandal in 2006 called "Bonusgate" that has led to 20 convictions or guilty pleas of Republican and Democratic lawmakers and staff who paid and received taxpayer-funded bonuses for campaign work.

Also, former state senator Vincent Fumo is serving a five-year federal prison sentence for corruption.

Fumo, who was found guilty in 2009 on 137 charges of fraud, tax evasion and obstruction of justice, was a wealthy longtime Democratic power broker first elected to the senate in 1978, the same year Perzel was first elected.

(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst)