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The Manzo example

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 7:43 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Lewis hit the mark with sentences imposed on corrupt pols convicted of using state resources for campaigns. For the most part.

He was way off on one -- the sentencing of Michael Manzo, the much-maligned star witness of the state Attorney General's Office, whose testimony helped take down House Democratic Whip Mike Veon -- twice -- and former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, Manzo's former boss.

Manzo was sentenced to 18 to 48 months in prison. Some might say it's not enough for a central figure of the House Democrats' bonus scandal. Lewis said bonuses were Manzo's "brain child." The bonuses were used to reward Democrat staffers who worked on campaigns.

But here's the rub: Manzo cut a deal with prosecutors and agreed to cooperate. He was instrumental in the Veon and DeWeese cases and he testified multiple times before investigative grand juries. That usually means a lot.

Prosecutors need a message sent that if you cooperate, you will, in effect, be rewarded with a lighter sentence. A prosecutor can't promise that. Only a judge can. But the deputy attorney general or assistant district attorney makes a recommendation to the judge, which often goes a long way.

Manzo received only three months less prison time than Brett Cott, a top Veon aide who did Veon's political work at taxpayers' expense. Manzo certainly was more culpable than Cott; he was higher on the food chain. But Cott appeared unrepentant. He didn't take responsibility. And he took the case to trial, which creates additional expenses for taxpayers.

Manzo manned up, saying it was not the "culture" causing the illegal acts; it was individuals who broke the law. And he said he was responsible for the theft of $1.2 million from taxpayers for political purposes. Veon, of course, gave Manzo the green light on the illegal bonus program, Manzo testified.

Manzo, unlike DeWeese, never blamed anyone else for the crimes. That was a frequent lament of DeWeese and, to a lesser extent, Veon. They were doing nothing differently from scores of legislators before them -- and after. DeWeese argued that the rules had changed in the middle of the game for legislative leaders.

That's true. The ethics case and prosecution of former Rep. Jeffrey Habay, R-Shaler, established that using state staff for campaign work was a felony. But the case was well known on Capitol Hill in 2004. By 2006, a Superior Court case upholding the Habay decision drew a bright line for lawmakers on what they could and could not do.

In the case of former Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, a McCandless Republican, prosecuted by the Allegheny County district attorney for using staff for campaign work, Orie had a staffer keep a scrapbook on the Habay clippings, according to testimony. Orie was convicted in March and will be sentenced May 21.

Manzo's sentence is not that much less than two former House speakers' -- John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and DeWeese -- who received 2 12 to five years in prison. They were the guys at the top calling the shots.

Judge Lewis seemed to carefully assign responsibility in connection with other factors. Veon was sentenced to 6 to 14 years in prison. Former Rep. Brett Feese, 4 to 12 years.

Perzel also cut a deal. His testimony was helpful in convicting Feese but not much else.

DeWeese had mitigating factors -- he was not involved in theft on a large scale, rather using Harrisburg and district staffers for his own campaigns.

Manzo owns up, helps the state and still gets a state prison sentence. Less than a year in a county lockup with work release would have been more fitting.

Brad Bumsted is the Trib's state Capitol reporter. Call him at 717-787-1405. Email him at: bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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