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State seeks details for Perzel inquiry

| Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006

State officials have asked Common Cause to cite more specifics and provide documentation from Pittsburgh Tribune-Review research before they launch an inquiry into House Speaker John Perzel's campaign spending.

The public interest lobby last month requested a Pennsylvania Department of State inquiry into the powerful Philadelphia Republican's "extraordinary use of campaign funds," citing a Trib report that detailed how the speaker had used campaign money to take his chief of staff, Brian Preski, and their sons to the Super Bowl in 2004 and '05.

The Trib cited more than 2,300 campaign vouchers that showed that the campaign sent the men and their wives on trips to Las Vegas, paid for $1,349 worth of drinks for a state Supreme Court committee, picked up the tab for $41,109 in meals in Philadelphia, where the two men live, and bought Chinese take-out for Preski's children and their baby-sitters so Preski and his wife could attend campaign events.

State officials have indicated they will review whether Perzel's campaign met the legal criteria that spending be limited to costs that "influence the outcome of an election," but have asked Common Cause to provide more specific examples of questionable expenditures.

"You call that the classic runaround," Robert Stern, director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said Wednesday. "Remember, the Legislature controls the budget of the agency that is looking into (Perzel). So the last thing they want to do is alienate the Legislature, especially if you're talking about someone as powerful as the speaker. At the same time, they have a responsibility to the citizens, and if they don't want to do it, they should say so."

The Department of State is only following protocol, agency press secretary Leslie Amoros said.

"The Department of State frequently requests complaining parties to provide us with some more specific details to enable us to focus our reviews," she said.

Common Cause of Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman said he's preparing a detailed list of items highlighted in the Trib story in an attempt to clarify his organization's concerns.

"The role of Common Cause is that there is now a significant body of public information that calls into question the practices of a member of the Legislature," Kauffman said. "It's (the department's) duty to look into it. They are the ones with the power and authority to take corrective action. I can't subpoena anyone."

Kauffman said he believes officials were sincere in their promise to review Perzel's spending.

Others weren't so sure.

"They don't want citizens to know what's going on. Any private business that treated its customers that way wouldn't have any customers," said Tim Potts, a former top legislative staffer who co-founded Democracy Rising PA, a statewide government reform coalition.

The vouchers and receipts in question, along with general campaign expense reports, should be available to the public on the Internet, Potts said.

Perzel, whose campaign spent $3.9 million in 2004 and '05 and funneled $700,000 through legislative staffers during that period, has consistently maintained that all of his expenses were within the bounds of state election law.

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