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Trib's Bumsted pens tales of corruption in Pa.

| Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider's View of a State Gone Wrong, written by the Tribune-Review's Brad Bumsted.

There are times when the gleaming state Capitol — with its polished marble, enormous chandeliers, ornate murals and glittering green dome — can seem like a pretty cesspool.

A book by Tribune-Review state Capitol writer Brad Bumsted, due for release on Sept. 9, chronicles decades of indictable escapades by some of the state's most powerful, compelling and flawed politicians.

In “Keystone Corruption: A Pennsylvania Insider's View of a State Gone Wrong,” published by Camino Books Inc., Bumsted pulls back the curtain on scandals from the Capitol's graft-ridden construction at the turn of the 20th century to the recent reigns of former House Speakers Bill DeWeese and John Perzel, now state inmates KN1888 and KM4619.

“These leaders who went to prison were very effective politicians,” Bumsted said. State Sen. Vince “Fumo, in particular, was one of the best I've ever seen.”

The book quotes a prison email from Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat and perhaps the most powerful senator of a generation, in which Fumo wrote he feels “like Caesar and Christ all tied into one.”

In other emails, the multimillionaire convicted of misappropriating millions of taxpayer dollars compared himself to Jews in concentration camps. Fumo recently was released from prison.

Bumsted writes with a mixture of outrage, empathy and even admiration of the political skill exhibited by some of the most capable politicians of the past few generations.

“These people were talented. They knew what they were doing,” Bumsted said. “But they were here too long and they became corrupted by the system.”

Perzel, R-Philadelphia, is among the starkest examples of the Harrisburg morality play that seems to recur every few years. The former restaurant worker used his formidable political skill and work ethic to amass vast influence as House Speaker, then spent millions of public money on a campaign machine to keep that influence.

Bumsted paints a sensitive picture of Perzel in the opening pages, relating how the fallen leader, hounded by reporters after pleading guilty to eight felonies in 2011, slinks into an elevator and locks eyes with Bumsted. He looked, Bumsted writes, “like a wounded animal.”

“He convinced himself that he really didn't do anything wrong,” Bumsted said.

The arrogance of power, one of several threads binding today's public thieves to their forebears, creates moments of hilarity. The book recounts how former Auditor General Al Benedict — “the best liar I ever met,” according to Bumsted — sold state jobs to stupendously unqualified people. Authorities were tipped off to the scheme when an auditor who showed up to scrutinize a police and fire pension fund spoke only Greek.

Bumsted amassed anecdotes over 27 years, during one of the longest careers of any active Harrisburg correspondent. The stories offer insights that rarely make it into newspaper stories, fleshing out textured, complex personalities bent by the weight of the influence they wield.

In one encounter, former House Minority Whip Mike Veon listens to Bumsted rattle off questionable expenses that Veon racked up at a conference, and then asks him: “Is that the best you can do?”

Seven years after that encounter, Veon is serving seven to 18 years at SCI Laurel Highlands for directing a legislative bonus scandal that doled out public money for campaign work. The one-time “Lion of the Legislature” became inmate JP4714.

“All of these people held power, so they tried to maintain it. They tried to hang onto it,” Bumsted said. “Power just blinds you after a while.”

Mike Wereschagin, a Trib Total Media staff writer, is mentioned in Chapter 9 of Bumsted's book. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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