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Jury set to hear state House corruption case

HARRISBURG — The criminal charges against three former House Republicans have a single theme: "the use of taxpayers' money for campaigns," a prosecutor said today.

"It's about powerful people using taxpayers' money to make their campaigns more effective," Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina told a Dauphin County jury. The goal of those accused was to keep power and increase power, Fina said. The testimony, he said, will show "millions of dollars of theft and conflict of interest."

A jury of six men and six women will decide the fate of former House GOP Whip Brett Feese of Lycoming County, his aide Jill Seaman and Brian Preski, former chief of staff to ex-House Speaker John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican. Feese also served as chief counsel for the House Republican Caucus.

They are accused of participating in a scheme to spend state money on technology to help Republicans win elections. Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis is presiding over the case. It's a crime to use equipment purchased by the state for campaigns, Fina said. The reason it's a crime, Fina said: "How do you even have a chance (to run for office) against somebody who has taxpayers' money on their side?"

Dubbed "Computergate" by the court, it is the latest case in nearly a five-year investigation by the attorney's general's office into the use of public resources for campaigns.

The man who presided over the House Republican Caucus was Perzel, and Preski was "his right hand man," Fina said. Perzel, 61, may testify as a Commonwealth wittness -- among more than 50 -- against his former employees and colleagues. Perzel pleaded guilty to eight felonies last month.

Preski, as Perzel's chief of staff, was more powerful than rank-and-file legislators, Fina said.

Three people with ties to the House Democratic Caucus were convicted last year of using public resources for campaigns. Seven Democrats pleaded guilty and two were acquitted. Three other Democrats, including ex-Speaker Bill DeWeese of Greene County, await trial.

Six Republicans charged in the technology case – including Perzel – have entered guilty pleas, and their plea agreements with the attorney general's office compel their cooperation with prosecutors, potentially as trial witnesses.

Former attorney general and now-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, launched the investigation in response to news reports in January 2007 about bonuses paid to House Democratic staffers.

The trial may last about two months. Defense attorneys for Preski, Feese and Seman are expected to make their opening arguments later today with testimony likely tomorrow.

Prosecutors say they streamlined the charges for trial.

Preski, 47, now faces 54 counts of theft, conflict of interest and conspiracy. He had been charged with 72 offenses.

Feese, 57, a lawyer from Muncy, and Seaman, 59, of Dauphin, are both charged with 40 counts of theft, conflict of interest and conspiracy, including one count each of hindering apprehension and obstruction.

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