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Attorney General investigation cleans Pennsylvania House

| Friday, March 23, 2012

HARRISBURG -- The attorney general's five-year legislative corruption investigation now has netted convictions of 21 people with ties to the state House, but the office filed no charges against anyone in the Senate.

"If people are not charged, they are not charged," said Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina.

That doesn't mean the Senate is free of trouble.

Federal prosecutors charged two state senators with using taxpayer-paid staff for political work, and the Allegheny County District Attorney's office charged Republican Sen. Jane Orie with the same thing.

Orie is now on trial and maintains her innocence. Former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow of Scranton agreed to plead guilty to mail fraud involving the use of staff. There were similar allegations against ex-Senate power broker Vincent Fumo among the 137 counts of which he was convicted in 2009, a case that began prior to the attorney general's investigation.

The 2 1/2-year prison term handed to former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, on Wednesday and the sentencing of six GOP aides this week brought that portion of the attorney general's investigation to a close. One trial remains from the overall investigation, for former Rep. Stephen Stetler, a York Democrat who also served as Rendell's secretary of revenue.

"The investigation has gone on three times longer than Watergate," said Dan Fee, a public relations strategist who worked for former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's campaigns.

There's no way for people on the outside to tell why federal investigators took certain cases and the attorney general concentrated on others, said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College and a former federal prosecutor. It can be a function of how information surfaced or whether state or federal laws were the best path to conviction, experts said.

The state investigation began with the so-called "Bonusgate" scandal among House Democrats, involving $1.4 million in bonuses paid to staffers who worked on campaigns. That was initiated by former Attorney General Tom Corbett, now the state's Republican governor, who pledged an investigation of "all four caucuses" in the House and Senate.

Fina refused to confirm whether the investigation is continuing. "I can't comment on the existence of cases or the absence of cases," he said.

Last September, Senate Republicans revealed they had $2.5 million in legal bills stemming from the attorney general's investigation. An updated figure could not be obtained yesterday, and a Senate spokeswoman said she could not comment beyond a statement issued at that time.

Senate Republicans "have done everything possible to cooperate with the attorney general's office," said the September statement from Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.

The investigation has been the subject of "widespread media coverage," and the attorney general's office needs to say whether senators and Senate staff have been cleared, Fee said. "If nothing is there, it is simply not fair to leave the cloud of suspicion hanging," he added.

"Historically, the criticism (of the attorney general's office) has been political," said Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the office. "Politics isn't driving what we do. The facts and the law drive what we do."

The attorney general's office is not in the business of publicly clearing people of crimes, Fina said.

"Prosecutors can, and sometimes do, make statements clearing people who have been the targets of investigations," said John Burkoff, who teaches criminal law at the University of Pittsburgh. "But there is absolutely no obligation for them to do so."

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