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If nothing else, first-degree arrogance

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Leanna Washington, center, walks to the police station in Abington, Pa., in this file photo from March 12, 2014. The Philadelphia Democrat preserved her pension through a deal in which she pleaded guilty to conflict of interest; prosecutors dismissed a theft charge. Washington, 69, collects a $42,879 annual pension.

HARRISBURG

People at the Capitol were shaking their heads, asking, “How could it happen again?”

As legislative leaders, ex-lawmakers and staffers were being handcuffed and placed under arrest since 2007 for a variety of scams, most notably using public resources for re-election, Democrat state Sen. LeAnna Washington of Philadelphia allegedly continued to pressure her staff to organize birthday fundraisers, elaborate affairs that included ice sculptures and bubble machines.

The time span is stunning, according to allegations by a statewide grand jury. Washington allegedly forced staffers to work for weeks, even months, on her annual fundraisers, according to prosecutors. They said illegal campaign work took place from 2005 through 2013.

That takes her through the period of former House Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, being arrested and convicted for overseeing state bonuses for staffers who worked on campaigns, former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, being charged with and convicted of stealing tax money for computer data and gizmos for GOP campaigns, and assorted other D & R staffers being charged and convicted for public corruption along with ex-House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, for starters. Perzel was paroled last month.

How could you miss it? The Ethics Commission ruling that in effect paved the way for these cases was released in 2004 against former Rep. Jeffrey Habay, R-Shaler, for forcing his staff to do his campaign work. Going back to 2005 extends to the illegal legislative pay raise, approved in the early morning hours. That act alone should have put everyone on notice that the public and media were paying greater attention than ever before.

Through her attorney, Washington denies any wrongdoing. The events don't add up to criminal charges, the lawyer contends.

If her former chief of staff, Sean McCray, told the truth to the grand jury, Washington, if nothing else, is guilty of first-degree arrogance.

McCray contends he tried to get Washington to stop using staff for her fundraisers, her main source of campaign money. According to the grand jury report, Washington told him she'd stop but she didn't do so. After that, she began to find fault with McCray's work and docked his pay by $10,000. When he talked to her about it again, he knew he was done, the grand jury said.

“I am the (expletive) senator. I do what the (expletive) I want, how I want and ain't nobody going to change me,” Washington said, according to the grand jury report.

A few months later, McCray was fired.

“Her response is mind-boggling,” said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg activist. “It's almost as if she dropped in from another political planet.”

Washington co-sponsored a resolution in 2010 that forbade campaign activity by Senate employees on Senate time. Maybe that was during the period she allegedly planned to change her ways — or maybe she didn't mean it at all.

During this period there's been little legislative reform — by leaders or by Gov. Tom Corbett, who campaigned on it. PennLive.com 's Jan Murphy snagged an interview with Perzel at his Northeast Philly home and asked about that. “What reforms did they get done?” he replied sarcastically.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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