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Veon goes nuclear

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 2:06 a.m.

HARRISBURG

Mike Veon and his co-defendants intend to put the Capitol political community on trial.

Veon, the former state House Democratic whip of Beaver Falls, is standing trial in Dauphin County Common Pleas Court on charges that he oversaw a black-ops-style political machine at a cost to taxpayers of millions of dollars.

Prosecutors allege Veon used your money for what should have been costs borne by campaigns, from knocking opponents off the ballot, to digging up dirt on them and winning state House seats.

Last week, Judge Richard Lewis read aloud a list of potential witnesses in the trial that easily could last a month. Witnesses the defense might call include about two dozen state legislators, a handful of former lawmakers and two top members of Attorney General Tom Corbett's staff.

Top leaders of the House and Senate are on the list. So is a Steve Crawford, who might be the governor's chief of staff or another Steve Crawford. The chief of staff was in the dark about why or even if he would be called.

Keep in mind it's a list of possible witnesses. The defense might change its mind based on how things are proceeding. Moreover, lawyers for the Legislature would likely file motions to prevent lawmakers from testifying, citing legislative immunity. They successfully blocked subpoenas in the pretrial stage.

The former Senate leaders might have to testify.

Several legislators and staffers on the list are criminal defendants in two separate cases, including former House speakers Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, and John Perzel, R-Philadelphia. If they testify, they might feel forced to take the Fifth Amendment to protect themselves. Or their lawyers might reach agreement on very limited testimony.

What a spectacle. And that's what this is about. Veon's defense is, in part, that "the other guy did it."

But it's far more sophisticated than that. It's about the blurring of the lines between campaigns and government.

Veon's lawyers want to show these are gray areas -- not black and white lines, as Corbett suggests. They need to create reasonable doubt. If Veon's attorneys can show others have been involved in political work in their official capacity, they will be one small step toward establishing that what Veon is accused of was the norm at the Capitol.

Politics in government is not illegal. The two are inextricably intertwined. Campaigning with state resources or on state time is illegal.

In the Veon case, the issue is allegedly using taxpayers' money, lots of it, for campaigns. An isolated instance, such as one call from the office to set up a campaign event, is not necessarily a crime. Did the person have criminal intent• Was there a pattern• Was it directed activity?

State-funded bonuses were given in other caucuses and there will be an attempt to draw parallels.

But giving or receiving a bonus, per se, is not a crime.

Veon's lawyers, as good defense attorneys do, will create a smokescreen over the courtroom and put others on trial. Dan Raynak and Joel Sansone are very good.

The prosecutor himself, Corbett, who is a Republican candidate for governor, has a target on his back and Veon's lawyers will be trying to show he engaged in campaign activity himself with state resources or on state time. But they'll need some basis to go there. Saying it doesn't make it so.

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