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Lone & flocking legal eagles

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG

In the turnpike corruption case, one deputy attorney general sits alone at the prosecution table across from nine defense attorneys.

Those defense lawyers in hearings to date often have separate arguments.

That contrasts sharply with the virtual army of prosecutors the Attorney General's Office sent to court in Bonusgate and Computergate trials in 2010 and 2011.

Particularly in the case against House Democrats — where former Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver County was the highest-profile figure — more than a half-dozen lawyers and agents would frequent the courtroom. That was a full-blown trial with super high stakes for former Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, who was running for governor. Corbett won both the governor's race and the trial. Veon remains in prison for overseeing a scheme to award legislative staffers with taxpayer-paid bonuses for campaign work.

In a pretrial hearing on the turnpike case last week, Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter squared off against nine defense attorneys, the vast majority with serious experience in criminal law. There are six defendants remaining in the “pay to play” portion of the case involving allegations of bid-rigging and bribery.

During the Bonusgate trial, Veon's attorney, Dan Raynak, constantly complained about the large prosecutory team. It was paid for with tax money, the very thing at issue in the trial, Raynak said.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, when stung by criticism about the scuttled sting case, cites a list of public corruption cases she has pursued that includes the turnpike. She's a Democrat. The defendants are Democrats. And to her credit, she pursued it upon taking office in 2013. She dismissed the legislative sting — an informant doling out cash to lawmakers — last year for an array of legal reasons she claims made it “unprosecutable.”

She's fulfilling a campaign promise to investigate why Corbett took almost three years to charge serial predator Jerry Sandusky. Her investigation of the investigation to date has taken about 14 months. The salary, benefits and expenses paid to a law school professor to compile the report cost $120,000 so far, Pennlive.com reported last month.

Don't be surprised to see Kane, in her report, comparing hours and costs of Bonusgate versus the Sandusky case.

At trial, some argue having a “second chair” is essential, if for nothing else than organizing the case, handling matters such as lining up witnesses. “Can you do it yourself? It's very difficult,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at St. Vincent College.

There's another school of thought that appearing by yourself, against a team on the other side, creates a strong impression on the jury.

It suggests you're the underdog, said William C. Costopoulos, a defense attorney. The second lawyer might do cross-examinations, handle expert witnesses or do the opening, Costopoulos said.

Is it essential? “Not at all,” he said.

On her own now, Brandstetter was the lead attorney in Veon's second trial where he was convicted for misusing tax money that went to a nonprofit. She was paired with prosecutor Frank Fina in that 2012 case.

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

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