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Ex-Pa. speaker Perzel gets up to 5 years

| Thursday, March 22, 2012

HARRISBURG -- Former House Speaker John Perzel got less prison time than some other key figures in a public corruption scandal because the Philadelphia Republican cooperated with authorities, a top prosecutor said on Wednesday.

"If they step forward, take responsibility and cooperate, it makes all the difference in the world," Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina said after a Dauphin County judge sentenced Perzel to 2 1/2 to 5 years in prison for his guilty pleas to eight felony counts.

"I've embarrassed myself, my friends, my family and the people of Pennsylvania," Perzel said. "They gave me a great honor. I disgraced them, and I am sorry."

At the same hearing, Common Pleas Judge Richard Lewis sentenced Perzel's chief of staff, Brian Preski, to a 24- to 48-month prison term for using state resources for campaigns. Preski pleaded guilty at trial but declined to testify against anyone. The judge placed on probation two lesser aides who pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors.

"We're pleased with the sentences. I think these sentences were entirely consistent with their cooperation," Fina said.

Perzel, 62, headed a scheme to use millions of dollars of tax money for his campaign and to keep Republicans in control of the House.

Preski and Perzel, the former restaurant maitre d' from Northeast Philadelphia who became the most powerful Republican in the House, could have their sentences cut by two months under a program for nonviolent offenders.

Witnesses asked for mercy, telling Lewis that Perzel is a good man, he's repentant and his wife has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

"I think the judge took everything under consideration, including his enormous good works," said attorney Brian McMonagle. "I really do."

Lewis said he took Perzel's wife's illness into account as well. He mentioned the more than 100 letters written on Perzel's behalf and said he prayed over his decision.

Perzel stood motionless, showing no emotion as the judge imposed the sentence. Earlier, he hung his head slightly at the defense table. He must report to the Dauphin County jail on April 11 before he goes to state prison. Preski must report on the same day, Lewis said.

Perzel lost a pension worth more than $1 million as a result of his conviction, McMonagle said. Lewis ordered Perzel and Preski each to pay $1 million in restitution.

The judge, who called the $10 million conspiracy "a shocking and flagrant violation of the public trust," said Perzel was the architect of the theft of tax dollars for campaigns. As such, his sentence could have been steeper.

In 2010, Lewis sentenced former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon to six to 14 years in prison for approving $1.4 million used for bonuses to reward legislative staffers who campaigned. Like Veon, a lesser figure in the GOP scandal, former House Republican Whip Brett Feese of Lycoming County fought the case through trial. Feese is serving a four- to 12-year prison term.

Perzel testified against Feese, whom a jury convicted in November.

Prosecutors said Perzel cooperated with law enforcement on unrelated cases, but Fina declined to identify those cases.

Perzel and Preski were among 10 Republicans charged in November 2009. Prosecutors said defendants purchased $10 million in computer equipment, programs and databases at taxpayer expense and used them for campaigns.

Perzel had a penchant for cutting-edge computer technology and was convinced of its application in campaigns, according to a grand jury report.

Seven of the GOP defendants entered guilty pleas, and two, including Feese, were convicted at trial. One case was dismissed.

They are among 21 people of both parties who pleaded guilty or were convicted by juries stemming from the state attorney general's investigation into the use of public resources for campaigns.

Fina declined to say whether the investigation has ended.

Eric Ruth -- Perzel's nephew and a former aide -- was sentenced on Tuesday to 60 months of probation. Elmer "Al" Bowman, another staffer, received 18 months of probation.

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