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Can Bill DeWeese survive'

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Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008

HARRISBURG -- It's difficult to see how he pulls it off.

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese is fighting a war on three fronts:

• An ongoing criminal investigation of the Democrat caucus by a state grand jury. DeWeese so far has escaped any legal consequences, but Attorney General Tom Corbett at a news conference on July 10 refused to say DeWeese was off the hook. More arrests are expected, Corbett said.

• Turmoil among rank-and-file Democrats, some of whom are complaining publicly and privately about DeWeese continuing as leader. It will be a major point of contention when the House returns to session in September for the first time since 12 people, including DeWeese's former chief of staff Mike Manzo and his former lieutenant, ex-Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver Falls, were charged with conflict of interest, theft and conspiracy for allegedly running a multimillion dollar campaign operation at taxpayers' expense.

• A tough challenge in November from Republican Greg Hopkins, a former Arena football player who came close to beating DeWeese in his Greene County district in 2006 after DeWeese helped lead an effort to jack lawmakers' pay the year before.

Here's the bottom line: DeWeese may win one or two of these conflicts, but it's hard to imagine him pulling off all three.

Even if he emerges unscathed from the grand jury probe of all four caucuses, he will be forever tagged as the leader with widespread corruption occurring on his watch.

His defense -- that he didn't know and that Veon and Manzo orchestrated all of it in secret -- will translate on the campaign trail and internally into a charge that he had no grip on what went on in his own caucus.

The investigation hasn't revealed whether there was obstruction of justice, which could be one of the next areas to yield charges.

DeWeese may be innocent of any wrongdoing. He has not been accused of anything illegal. DeWeese loyalists swear to his honesty.

But one way or another, Manzo at some point will tell his side of the story. Whether that's part of a plea bargain or at trial, he'll talk about what he believes DeWeese isn't owning up to.

With his wife Rachel Manzo also accused of taking part in a scheme to award bonuses for campaign work and Mike Manzo accused of infidelity in the grand jury report, some believe it's likely at some point he'll strike a deal. He knows the intricacies of DeWeese's affairs.

One needed only to listen closely to Manzo's attorney Jim Eisenhower after Manzo's arraignment: "Anyone who believes the allegations in the presentment were masterminded by Michael Manzo for his benefit is very naive," Eisenhower said.

"I believe my behavior has been honorable and appropriate," DeWeese said. "I'm confident authorities will view it in the same vein."

William Chadwick, a Washington D.C., lawyer and former inspector general hired by DeWeese, will make a strong case that DeWeese cooperated at every step of the attorney general's investigation, turning over thousands of e-mails that were reflected in the grand jury's presentments.

DeWeese fired seven staffers, including Manzo, based on recovered e-mails. DeWeese and Chadwick have long insisted Chadwick is overseeing the legal representation of the entire caucus -- not just DeWeese.

The problem emerges for other House Democrats seeking re-election in November -- the vast majority of whom had no hand in the so-called "Bonusgate" scandal. They feel they are getting unfairly tarred.

Even if DeWeese was duped, make no mistake that he will be the poster boy for the House Republican Campaign Committee targeting corrupt practices in Harrisburg. Only charges against Republican lawmakers and staffers might blunt that attack.




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