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Bob Mellow, you're no Abe Lincoln

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 9:09 p.m.

HARRISBURG

The comparison of disgraced state Senate leader Bob Mellow to Abraham Lincoln seems at best, off base.

When Mellow was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison this month, his lawyer, Sal Cognetti, compared Mellow's misdeeds to those alleged to have been made by Lincoln in the new movie “Lincoln,” according to a story by Borys Krawczeniuk in the Scranton Times-Tribune. Cognetti is a top-notch criminal defense lawyer. You can't begrudge him every effort to try and protect his client.

But Lincoln? It doesn't wash.

“In the first hour of the movie, Lincoln violated about 15 criminal statutes,” Cognetti said. “He did it to get the 13th Amendment (prohibiting slavery) passed. I'm not saying Bob Mellow is Abraham Lincoln,” according to the Times-Tribune.

But sometimes “the speed(ing) sign was down” in Lincoln's case as in Mellow's, he said.

Mellow pleaded guilty to conspiracy for filing a false tax return and using his state Senate staff for campaign work. Mellow had been minority leader and briefly, president pro tempore. He was a key player for decades in Senate politics. But he didn't free the slaves. Neither did he preserve the union.

Mellow was trying to preserve his way of life in the Legislature and continue to maintain power in the state Senate.

Cognetti disputed making a direct comparison of Mellow to Lincoln. By no means was he suggesting Mellow was “off on a noble cause.” He said he brought it up to show that things Lincoln did to gain passage of the 13th Amendment would one day become illegal. In the same vein, Mellow was caught in a period where the rules were shifting.

There's no doubt Lincoln “stretched the Constitution” to win the war and preserve the union, said G. Terry Madonna, a historian, pollster and political commentator.

In the movie, Lincoln approves of using federal patronage for securing votes to pass the 13th Amendment.

In the standard of mid-19th-century politics, it was commonplace and not necessarily illegal, said John Baick, a professor of history and political science at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

The film shows Lincoln telling the Albany lobbyists brought in to help pass the amendment that no cash was to be used. No one knows for sure what the lobbyists did because they certainly would not have kept a record, Baick added.

If the patronage angle is true, Lincoln may have violated the spirit of the law, said Baick. “But this is not Nixon. It's not even Bill Clinton,” he said.

The argument seems to be that Lincoln broke some rules and that's all Mellow did — as well in a changing culture. Using tax money for campaigning has been well established as criminal in recent years in state and federal court. The 2007 Habay decision by Superior Court was the game-changer.

Seven other former legislative leaders are in prison now for doing so. None of them compare well to Lincoln either.

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

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