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Three aides of former House speaker accept plea agreements

| Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

HARRISBURG -- Former House Speaker John Perzel says he is not considering a plea deal, but three of his former top aides agreed to plead guilty in a political corruption case targeting the Philadelphia Republican, the state Attorney General's Office said on Tuesday.

Prosecutors allege Perzel, 61, designed a scheme to divert $10 million in tax money for sophisticated computer equipment and programs to assist GOP campaigns, including his own. He is charged with 82 felonies.

Perzel told the Philadelphia Daily News he is not considering a plea bargain, although his brother-in-law, his former chief of staff and his former campaign manager will agree to deals in Dauphin County Court this week, according to the attorney general's spokesman. Neither Perzel nor his attorney, Brian McMonagle of Philadelphia, was available for comment.

"I was not anticipating pleas from these three, and I am interested in knowing what counts they're pleading to," said Donna McClellan, a Greensburg lawyer representing another former Perzel aide, Al Bowman of York County.

The attorney general's office would not specify the charges. The pleas would be the first from among 10 Republican defendants charged with using public resources for campaigns. Defense attorneys involved in the case say they expect more.

From the mid-1990s through 2006, Perzel was one of the most powerful state lawmakers. The former majority leader and House speaker was a key ally of former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, helping Rendell win passage of a state income tax increase in 2003 and the legalization of slot machines in 2004.

Defeated at the polls last year, Perzel is collecting a state pension of $85,644 per year after getting an up-front, lump-sum payment of $203,936, state pension officials confirmed last week. He served 32 years in the House.

A November 2009 grand jury presentment identified one of Perzel's aides, brother-in-law Samuel "Buzz" Stokes, as a "ghost employee" who collected a check from taxpayers while directing Perzel's House campaigns.

Stokes, 68, of Philadelphia and Don McClintock, 36, of Vorhees, N.J., are scheduled to plead guilty today, said Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for Attorney General Linda Kelly. Perzel's former chief of staff Paul Towhey, 40, is scheduled to enter a guilty plea on Friday, Frederiksen said.

Stokes' position as a state-paid House Republican Caucus employee was hidden from nearly all of Perzel's Capitol staff and district office staff, according to the presentment. Stokes faces 42 felony charges including theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest. Stokes was paid $196,808 in taxpayer money, but the grand jury found little evidence he did legislative work.

McClintock was Perzel's campaign office manager. He was not on the state payroll. He faces 18 felonies, including theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest.

Towhey of Blue Bell in Montgomery County faces similar charges. Among the 28 felony charges against him, one is obstructing administration of law and another is hindering apprehension or prosecution.

"The guilty pleas ... do not come as a surprise," said William Fetterhof, a Harrisburg attorney representing Jill Seaman, another defendant. "I do not expect these guilty pleas will have any effect on the trial of Mrs. Seaman" scheduled next month, Fetterhof said.

Criminal defendants typically agree to plea bargains in exchange for reduced or fewer charges and the prospect of lighter sentences, said John Burkoff, who teaches criminal law at the University of Pittsburgh law school. The prosecution in return gets "certainty of a conviction," conservation of resources, and potential witnesses against other defendants, he said.

Perzel is scheduled for trial on Sept. 12.

Fetterhof said he thinks Perzel, Bowman and Perzel nephew Eric Ruth will plead guilty because they didn't join a defense motion he submitted on witnesses and jury questions that were due Monday. He noted Bowman testified as a prosecution witness at a preliminary hearing in May.

Burkoff said when defendants who worked together decline to join a pretrial motion, it typically indicates "something is going on. But that's about all you can say."

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