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Jail time for offenders deters legislative corruption in Pennsylvania

| Monday, March 12, 2012

HARRISBURG — As prosecutors hoped, public corruption convictions during the past four years are deterring legislators from the decades-long practice of using taxpayer money for campaigns, lawmakers and experts say.

"You have to be crazy not to get it," said Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Coraopolis, whose staff won't take campaign calls. He takes campaign photocopying to a private business.

The House and Senate adopted rules and policies to guard against politicking on the state's dime and the abuse of lawmaker-controlled nonprofits. But such violations were against the law before, as evidenced by the convictions.

Clear rules are important, but it's probably the stiff sentences imposed on former legislative leaders affecting lawmakers' attitudes, said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Fear and self-preservation are motivating factors, he said.

Former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon is serving a state prison term of at least six years. His GOP counterpart, Brett Feese, later the Republican Caucus' chief counsel, is serving a minimum four-year prison term. Others are awaiting sentencing.

Legislators say they arduously guard against mixing campaign and state work since state and local law enforcement charged 26 people — legislative staffers and former and current lawmakers — with crimes since 2008. It began with an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office into both political parties' use of public resources. To date, 21 people have been convicted or have pleaded guilty.

One distinction from many legislative scandals of the past century is that prosecutors charged, convicted and sent to prison legislative staffers and lawmakers.

"Our caucus conducts extensive training sessions on ethics," said Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil. "Sometimes the best way to ensure you steer clear of any trouble, real or perceived, is to avoid certain situations altogether. For example, I pay for my own cellphone and laptop, so if I send a political phone call or send a political email, taxpayers can be sure they are not paying for it."

Borick believes the House Democrats' scheme known as "Bonusgate," which paid $1.4 million in tax money to staffers for campaign bonuses, "will probably hang with the Legislature for a generation." House Republicans used $10 million in state dollars for sophisticated computer technology to help Republicans win elections.

Over time, some lawmakers might resort to old ways, Borick said.

'Culture of privilege'

Using state payroll for campaign work is rooted in the legislative culture, a grand jury report stated, noting Pennsylvania and most states made that practice illegal in the 1970s. Lawmakers received plenty of warnings — in the state House, dating to 2002 when parliamentarian Clancy Myer sent memos saying legislative staff could not campaign during regular work hours unless on leave.

In 2005, a jury convicted former Rep. Jeffrey Habay, R-Shaler, of conflict of interest for using his staff and state resources for campaigns. Gov. Tom Corbett, then the state attorney general, said if lawmakers did not get it before, they clearly should have after Habay's conviction.

Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, was interested in the Habay case, and her staff kept a scrapbook of news stories about it, witnesses said in her corruption trial under way in Allegheny County. In 2010, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. charged Orie with essentially the same thing — using public resources for her campaigns and her sister Joan Orie Melvin's successful campaign for the Supreme Court.

Orie, who relinquished her position as majority whip when charged, maintains her prosecution is politically motivated. Zappala has not charged Melvin, who received a letter notifying her that she is the target of a grand jury investigation.

Doing campaign work on the state's dime "was part of the culture of privilege," Borick said. "It's fair to say a number of (legislative) leaders flaunted it."

Said Tim Potts, an aide in the 1990s to Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, a former House leader: "Yes, people knew it was illegal. Yes, everyone was doing it. There were entire offices of people whose jobs were opposition research, public opinion research, incumbent protection plans and just about everything else you can think of, all at taxpayer expense, all focused on helping candidates win elections. And all four caucuses did it."

Potts said DeWeese called him "John the Baptist" because he refused to campaign.

'Never did, never will'

Former House GOP aide Bill Williams said he never saw evidence of campaigning but suspected both political parties were doing it.

"One would have to be blind to such possibilities to not realize it was possible," said Williams, a staffer from 1978 through 1996.

The House Democrats' caucus administrator emailed staffers and legislators annually, warning against doing campaign work on state time. People routinely ignored the emails, said Mike Manzo, DeWeese's former chief of staff. A jury last month convicted DeWeese of five felonies, including theft, for campaigning with state resources at his Harrisburg and Waynesburg offices. He awaits sentencing.

"My staff does not work on campaigns, even after hours," said Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon. "Never did, never will."

House and Senate rules enacted since the bonus scandal broke specify what employees can and cannot do during the workday. House Republican staffers, for example, are not permitted on the premises of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin.

"This has nothing to do with institutional rules. This has to do with felonies," said Jack Treadway, former political science chairman at Kutztown University and author of a book on state elections.

Treadway believes convictions will deter abuses "for the short term. I'm sanguine about the long term," he said, noting corruption in Pennsylvania historically comes in cycles

"It's hard to overlook a century of history," he said.

Additional Information:

Recent convictions

• Former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, pleaded guilty in August to eight felonies for spending millions of dollars on computer technology and programs aimed at helping Republican candidates in elections; to be sentenced March 21.

• A jury convicted former House Republican Whip Brett Feese, a one-time Lycoming County district attorney, of 36 felonies and four misdemeanors in November for participating in the conspiracy with Perzel to use public money for campaigns. A judge sentenced him to four to 12 years in state prison.

• A jury last month convicted former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, a sitting representative, of five felonies for using state resources for campaigns at his district and Harrisburg offices; to be sentenced April 24.

• Jurors last week convicted former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon of eight felonies and two misdemeanors for misusing the state-funded nonprofit he founded in Beaver County for personal and political gain; also convicted in 2010 for directing $1.4 million program that awarded taxpayer-paid bonuses to staffers who did campaign work. Serving a six- to 14-year prison term and faces more prison time at April 18 sentencing on the new convictions.

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