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Perzel says he's at mercy of court; implicates upper-tier managers

HARRISBURG -- Ex-House Speaker John Perzel said on Tuesday he lied to himself, his colleagues and constituents about his innocence in a criminal case but wanted to put the felony charges behind him.

"I deluded myself," said Perzel, 61, once the most powerful Republican in the General Assembly, who pleaded guilty to eight felony charges in August.

"I was tired of this," Perzel testified in Dauphin County Court. "I wanted it to come to an end. I accepted responsibility. I knew I had done wrong. I went in. I admitted my guilt. I am willing to take the sentence handed out to me."

Saying, "we all crossed the line," Perzel, of Philadelphia, testified upper-tier managers in the state House knew that Republican campaigns used computer programs paid for with tax dollars. "The management people at the top of the hierarchy knew, yes," Perzel said.

He directly implicated former Rep. Brett Feese, who is standing trial, saying Feese "had to know." Feese, of Lycoming County, chaired the House Republican Campaign committee, the political arm of the House GOP Caucus.

Perzel testified after striking a plea bargain with prosecutors. His plea, reached shortly before he was scheduled to stand trial, included an admission that he oversaw the use of $10 million in tax money for campaign purposes.

Feese, the former House GOP whip, and his former secretary, Jill Seaman of Dauphin County, are on trial before a jury of six men and six women on similar charges of using public resources for campaigns. The trial is in its fourth week.

Perzel said Seaman only took notes, and he never talked to her about his use of the computer systems.

As speaker, Perzel had a reputation for being confrontational, blunt and, at times, arrogant.

Yesterday, he appeared far more relaxed than he had for his plea appearance, and he smiled on the way into the courthouse. Wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit set off by a light blue tie, his only sign of unease was repeatedly taking his glasses off while on the witness stand. His voice was steady. He seemed to be making a conscious effort not to snap at defense attorney Joshua Lock, who hammered him with questions.

He weakened at times, responding to Lock by saying, "I just said that," or, "Was that a question?"

It was not the defiant John Perzel who had railed at the press for its coverage of the 2005 legislative pay raise he helped engineer.

When Perzel became speaker in 2003, Rep. Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, became majority leader and controlled the purse strings. Smith's name appears on some of the state-paid contracts with computer consultants who did campaign work for House Republicans.

Perzel said the consultants' work included legitimate legislative work.

"Sam Smith signed contracts and checks," Perzel said.

When Lock suggested in a question that Perzel "controlled" Smith, Perzel disagreed. "If I asked him to do something, he did it. It's not that I controlled him." Smith, now the House speaker, has not been charged.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Smith, said he would not comment in the midst of a trial.

The defense has subpoenaed Smith to testify, Miskin has said.

Perzel alluded to personal problems that prompted his decision to plead guilty but did not elaborate.

Asked by prosecutor Patrick Blessington if he pleaded guilty because he was guilty, Perzel said "yes." Perzel said there were no promises on the sentence. He faces a maximum 24 years in prison, though it's unlikely he will get that.

Perzel, Feese and Seaman were among 10 defendants with ties to the House Republican Caucus accused in a November 2009 grand jury presentment. Seven entered guilty pleas. Most agreed to cooperate as prosecution witnesses. Judge Richard Lewis agreed to try former aide John Zimmerman separately from the rest but has not set a trial date.

Perzel's former chief of staff, Brian Preski, 46, sat with Feese and Seaman at the defense table during the first week of trial. During the second week, Preski cut a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to 10 felonies.

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