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Unprecedented convictions' lessons learned?

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

HARRISBURG

The year 2012 brought to a close one of the most sordid chapters in Pennsylvania history, which resulted in the conviction of eight legislative leaders over a four-year period.

Eight ex-leaders being convicted is unprecedented. It totally rearranged the power structure of leadership.

Have things drastically improved? “Drastically” is the operative word. In short, no. But what's different in the long run is that the iron grip that longtime leaders held over the rank and file has been, to a degree, diminished.

No single investigative agency brought this about. The Attorney General's Office under Republican former AG and now Gov. Tom Corbett and his appointed successor, Linda Kelly, accounted for five of the eight convictions. The feds took down the most powerful leader of all, in my view, ex-Sen. Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat who is serving a 60-month sentence in a federal prison in Kentucky.

Fumo defrauded a nonprofit group, for which he had secured millions of tax dollars, and used taxpayers' money to pay legislative staff and contractors as if it were his own. His employees did everything from balancing his checkbook to developing his gentleman's farm near Halifax.

Once the FBI had its foot in the door of the Senate Democratic Caucus, the feds, in what looked like a trade-off or quiet agreement with the AG, charged two Democrat state senators — one of them former leader Bob Mellow, of Scranton, who faces sentencing on Friday.

Other developments this year:

• Former Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, R-McCandless, was convicted of using her state-paid staff for her own campaigns and for her sister Joan Orie Melvin's state Supreme Court election in 2009. The prosecution was brought by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democrat. Joan Orie Melvin, who also was charged, maintains her innocence and awaits trial next year.

• Former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, was convicted of using his legislative staff to work on his campaigns. He was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison.

• Former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon, formerly of Beaver Falls, was sentenced to an additional one to four years in prison for misusing a nonprofit he created. That added on to his six-to-14-year sentence for approving the use of taxpayers' money for bonuses for staffers who worked on Democrat campaigns.

• Former Republican House Speaker John Perzel was sentenced to two and a half to five years in a $10 million computer scam that amounted to theft of tax dollars; former Republican Whip Brett Feese, of Lycoming County, drew a four-to-12-year sentence in the same scam, and former House Democratic Policy Chairman Steve Stetler is serving a one-and-a-half-to-five-year sentence for abusing public resources.

No GOP senators other than Orie were ever charged. The Attorney General's Office investigated the caucus but declined to file charges.

Whether lawmakers have learned the lessons from these scandals is anyone's guess. They say so, but time will tell.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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