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Former state Dem leader Mellow pleads guilty in corruption case

| Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 9:22 p.m.
Former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow on Friday, Dec. 1, 2012, likely will join seven other former Pennsylvania legislative leaders imprisoned for corruption. AP

HARRISBURG -- Former Senate Democratic leader Robert Mellow on Wednesday pleaded guilty to using Senate staffers for his campaigns -- the 32nd person charged in northeastern Pennsylvania corruption prosecutions that have convicted judges, contractors and county and school officials.

Mellow, 69, pleaded guilty in Scranton to a federal conspiracy charge for the campaigning and to filing a false tax return. He faces a maximum five-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors accused Mellow, who served four decades in the Senate and was one of its most powerful members, of exhibiting "willful blindness" while state Senate staffers raised money for his campaigns between 2006 and 2010, and of filing a false 2008 tax return.

He said little yesterday other than to briefly answer questions from the judge. The Tribune-Review could not reach his attorney, Sal Cognetti Jr.

The federal investigations of public officials and others in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties indicate corruption is endemic in the area, said Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

"It's part of the culture," said Baldino, a Philadelphia native. "The political culture in this part of the state, and the southeast as well, has fostered or nurtured the practice ... of quid pro quo. There's an expectation of government officials that 'If I do something for you, you do something for me.' "

Until recently, people seeking teaching jobs paid a $3,000 to $4,000 bribe, said author William Ecenbarger, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter.

Most notable among the investigations was the so-called Kids for Cash scandal, in which two judges took $2.6 million in kickbacks from a contractor for sending juveniles to private detention centers the contractor built.

A May 2010 report by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, following that scandal, said: "In politics, a culture of mutual back-scratching dominated relations between politicians, public officials and businessmen. A powerful organized crime group held sway in the region."

That culture stems from "a very complex situation, and it's unique," said Ecenbarger, who is writing a book about the judicial scandal.

It began with coal barons who exploited immigrants brought in to work mines, he said. Mine operators openly were in league with organized crime. When the mines closed, government became the best employer in Luzerne County's 76 municipalities, presenting opportunities "for jobs and for bribery," Ecenbarger said.

Yet public corruption charges are not limited to that region.

Mellow is the seventh legislative leader statewide to be convicted of crimes since 2010, in investigations by the FBI, state Attorney General's Office and Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

The charges against Mellow are similar to those the attorney general filed against 25 former staffers and legislators accused of using public resources for campaigns. Twenty-one people pleaded guilty or were convicted in the state prosecutions. Juries acquitted two people, and prosecutors dismissed one case. Another person awaits trial this month.

Among those convicted: former Sen. Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat serving a 60-month federal prison term; former Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie, R-McCandless, who awaits sentencing on charges of using her staff to do political work on state time; former House Speakers John Perzel, R-Philadelphia; and Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg.

Prosecutors said Mellow allowed aides to submit false documents to the Senate clerk's office for payment for staff members who performed political fundraising and campaign work.

The State Employees Retirement System will decide whether Mellow can keep his $138,958 state pension, said Pam Hile, an agency spokeswoman. At issue is whether the federal crime to which he pleaded is comparable to state charges requiring pension revocation.

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