Perzel to plead guilty in corruption case

| Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

HARRISBURG -- Former House Speaker John Perzel, the blunt, fast-talking, former restaurant waiter who became one of Pennsylvania's most powerful politicians, is slated to plead guilty today to corruption charges.

Perzel, a Republican from a blue-collar district in Northeast Philadelphia, for better or worse, was able to "make things happen in Harrisburg," said political scientist Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College.

"John Perzel was undoubtedly one of the prominent players in Pennsylvania politics," Borick said.

Perzel, 61, is scheduled to plead guilty in Dauphin County Court to charges he allegedly directed a multimillion dollar scheme to use taxpayers' resources for sophisticated computer equipment to give Republicans an edge in elections. He will become only the second speaker in modern history to face criminal charges. Speaker Herbert Fineman, a Philadelphia Democrat, went to prison after a 1977 conviction for obstruction of justice.

"It's sad both of them ended up on the wrong side of the law," said Vincent Carocci, press secretary to the late Gov. Robert Casey.

Perzel, and former Democratic Sen. Vincent Fumo, another Philadelphia power broker, controlled the flow of much money and legislation at the state Capitol between 2003 and 2007. Fumo is serving a 55-month prison sentence on federal corruption charges.

Perzel's alliance with Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, also of Philadelphia, helped the governor pass controversial legislation -- from a 10 percent income tax increase in 2003 to passage of slots legalization in 2004. It also brought heat from Republican conservatives, Borick noted.

Perzel was one of the key lawmakers who pushed through a 2005 legislative pay raise, which Rendell signed but the Legislature later repealed after an onslaught of public outrage.

"John Perzel was an effective speaker because he was not an ideologue," said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia public relations strategist. "John Perzel was about results, getting things done and working toward a deal. He was able to make things work under Republican and Democratic governors."

But there was a dark side.

"Politically, he could play hardball," said Ceisler. "He made it very tough for Democrats to raise (campaign) money and be competitive in House races. He could be oppressive as leader."

"I just didn't trust John," said former House Republican staffer Bill Williams. He worked for the late House Speaker Matthew Ryan and quit when Perzel took over in 2003. "I was not aware of any illegal activities," said Williams, 76, a Civil War novelist. "I always felt he was trying to be much more of a politician than a statesman."

The grand jury presentment against Perzel alleged that he directed dirty tricks against Republicans who opposed his programs.

Perzel and nine other Republicans were charged with felonies in November 2009. Trial was slated for Sept. 26.

Three former Republican aides, including Perzel's ex-chief of staff, entered guilty pleas two weeks ago.

Perzel's nephew Eric Ruth of Boca Raton, Fla., a former staffer, also is scheduled to plead guilty today to charges of conspiracy and conflict of interest.

"It tells me it's pretty hard for the remaining defendants not to consider plea agreements," said professor John Burkoff, who teaches criminal law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

Perzel faces 82 charges of conflict of interest, theft, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Perzel's lawyer could not be reached.

Before and after college, Perzel worked as a waiter and later became maitre d' at an Italian restaurant in Northeast Philly. It was there he was discovered by a GOP political boss who liked his style.

Perzel's work ethic impressed most who knew him. Ted Hershberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said his first impression of Perzel was of a guy who got elected in 1979 going to every house in the district.

Hershberg remembers Perzel's early fascination with computers, before most pols or people his age took a serious interest. Perzel realized "people who could use computers could convert that to significant political leverage in elections," Hershberg said.

Perzel's blunt manner was demonstrated in 1995 when he angered Latinos by saying it was "a badge of honor for a young Hispanic to get their girl pregnant."

In 2005, Perzel claimed cow-milkers and Philadelphia tattoo artists earned more money than state legislators.

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