By Mark Shade and Matt Stroud
HARRISBURG/WAYNESBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - One of Pennsylvania's most influential politicians was certain he would rack up another election victory on Tuesday, but any celebration was spoiled by a hefty prison term handed down earlier in the day.
H. William DeWeese ran unopposed to be the Democratic nominee for the state House of Representatives seat he first won in 1976, and his name will be on the November ballot in the general election.
The problem with his candidacy, though, is that as a felon he is ineligible to hold state office unless he wins on appeal.
He was sentenced to 30 to 60 months in prison for using state employees to campaign for him for free. DeWeese resigned from the state legislature just prior to his sentencing.
DeWeese's attorney, Bill Costopolous, said DeWeese's name remained on the ballot because the Greene County Democratic Party wanted it there. Had the party asked DeWeese to strike it from the ballot, he would have done so, the attorney said.
For DeWeese, 62, the prison sentence capped a 35-year career in politics during which he has served as House majority whip and speaker.
For Democratic voters in his southwestern Pennsylvania district, the sentence left them with little choice.
"Our only option is a felon," said retired nurse Ann Huebschman as she left a polling station in Waynesburg in the heart of DeWeese's district.
Huebschman said she cast a write-in ballot for "Anyone Else."
DeWeese's 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.
Doing any campaigning while on the public clock is against the law in Pennsylvania.
STILL HAS VOTER SUPPORT
John Lacava, an out-of-work cook in Waynesburg, said he would cast a vote for DeWeese.
"You hear about the things politicians do and sometimes those things are really bad. But I heard what DeWeese did and I don't think it's that bad," he said.
A jury found DeWeese guilty in February of criminal conspiracy, conflict of interest and theft. He had faced the possibility of 38 years in prison.
Judge Todd Hoover said at the sentencing that DeWeese had "taken advantage of friendships" in having employees campaign for him. But the judge had words of praise for him as well.
"I believe you served with distinction, honor and pride," the judge said. "You are a good candidate for rehabilitation."
DeWeese spoke briefly in court, saying: "I want to apologize to my beloved family, friends and everyone who believed in me."
DeWeese also was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and $116,680 in restitution to the state. He stands to lose a pension of as much as $2.8 million.
He is to report to prison on May 14, but his attorneys have said they will seek to have him freed on bail once his case is under appeal. Prosecutors said they would fight that request.
At trial, DeWeese testified he did nothing wrong and had trusted the hundreds of people who worked in the Democratic Caucus because he was rarely around to supervise.
Prosecutors contended DeWeese had a sense of entitlement about forcing state employees to campaign for him.
(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Jackie Frank)