Former Pa. Dem leader Mellow would set 'record' by going to jail
HARRISBURG — Ex-Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow on Friday is likely to join seven other former Pennsylvania legislative leaders imprisoned for corruption.
So many politicians serving time in federal and state prisons at once is “stunning” and unprecedented, at least in recent history, said Craig Holman, an analyst and lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington.
“Eight leaders, that's a record,” he said. “It does indicate corruption is fairly rampant in the Legislature and the Capitol.”
Federal prosecutors are seeking two years of prison for Mellow, 68, of Scranton. He pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy for filing a false tax return and having staffers do campaign work.
Mellow probably will get time behind bars, said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor.
“But there is no way to foretell accurately whether there will be automatic jail time or not in the federal system,” said Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College near Latrobe. He said, generally, “politicians going into federal court (on corruption charges) have not fared well.”
Mellow's lawyers asked to spare him prison time.
In many of the corruption cases prosecuted in Pennsylvania, elected officials used public resources such as staff, tax money, faxes, phones, copiers or mail services to fuel or plan campaigns. Mellow wanted to run for governor but did not.
In Mellow's office, political work practically became institutionalized, federal records suggest. His aides recruited Democratic candidates for Senate races and organized fundraisers and Election Day efforts to boost voter turnout, records showed.
Staffers helped Mellow gather signatures for nominating petitions. They conducted “opposition research” on challengers.
Mellow's case resembled the prosecution of former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, in terms of political tasks that staffers carried out. Both lawmakers used employees to conduct personal chores, testimony and court documents showed.
DeWeese, prosecuted by the state attorney general's office, is serving 2 1⁄2 to 5 years in prison.
“For the old guard in the General Assembly, the habits of criminal activity simply couldn't be changed,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg policy group. “I do believe, going forward, that the reality of so many elected officials occupying space in our state prisons will discourage such behavior in the future. At least, we hope so.”
Asked whether the prosecutions halted campaigning on tax dollars in the Legislature, Gov. Tom Corbett said: “I like to believe it has. I know of no reason not to believe that.”
As attorney general, Corbett oversaw five of the eight cases. Federal prosecutors handled two cases, and the Allegheny County District Attorney prosecuted Sen. Jane Orie of McCandless for using state staff for politics.
For Corbett, a Superior Court ruling on the appeal of former Rep. Jeffrey Habay, a Shaler Republican convicted for using staff for political work, became the linchpin of future cases. The Habay ruling established that a politician who uses taxpayer resources for campaigns receives monetary gain, which can be criminally prosecuted.
Mellow continued his criminal activity even after the Habay decision in 2007 and Sen. Vince Fumo's indictment that year, records show. When a staffer raised the issue of Mellow's state-funded campaign work being similar to theirs, he replied: “I'm not Fumo. Fumo's a criminal.”
Former Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver Falls and former House Speaker John Perzel took the use of staffers for political work to another level. Veon oversaw a $1.4 million legislative bonus program to reward staffers who worked on campaigns. Perzel engineered the $10 million purchase of computer programs and databases designed to help Republicans win elections.
Walter Cohen, a former acting attorney general who represented Perzel and DeWeese, paraphrased a comment by the late Sen. Henry J. Buddy Cianfrani: “They didn't tell me they changed the rules.” Cianfrani, D-Philadelphia, was convicted of racketeering and mail fraud in 1977.
Cohen doesn't defend using public funds for campaigns but said these legislative leaders did what others did for decades. What they did “doesn't meet the classic definition of corruption,” he said — that is, making payoffs for favors or for directing legislation.
“Each year, people went a little bit deeper in having staff do campaign finance work,” Cohen said. “The next thing they knew, they were over the line.”
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and firstname.lastname@example.org.