Lawyer, supporters make case for DeWeese

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HARRISBURG -- Former state House Speaker Bill DeWeese was more than a hundred miles up the Susquehanna River in his state prison cell and so couldn't make his appeal hearing Wednesday morning, but plenty of his friends did.

When his attorney, Bill Costopoulos, finished making his case before the state Superior Court, about half the courtroom went out the door with him. DeWeese has always had a slew of supporters, as evidenced by winning three elections after his indictment. His doing hard time on a state-workers-campaigning-before-5 o'clock rap hasn't dampened that love any.

"I don't think he could ever do anything wrong," Josephine Gresko, an 84-year-old beauty shop owner from Carmichaels, in Greene County, told me in the hallway. "He doesn't need to be where he's at."

Mr. Costopoulos was a bit more verbose in making that case. Fresh from a bear-hunting trip in Alaska, the dapper veteran of the Pennsylvania bar aimed his oral argument for a new trial at just one aspect of his brief: an alleged error by Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Todd A. Hoover for stopping DeWeese from calling more witnesses at his trial who would have said the prosecution's assertions were all wet.

It may take two or three months for a decision from the three-judge panel on his appeal, but Mr. Costopoulos believes DeWeese's conviction will be vacated and he will be awarded a new trial.

Meantime, DeWeese has begun his second year in prison. The longtime legislator from Waynesburg was sentenced to serve at least 2 1/2 years for convictions of theft, criminal conspiracy and conflict of interest. He has arguably the stiffest sentence relative to his crimes of anyone nailed in the recent series of corruption trials of members and staffers of America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature.

Thirteen Democrats and nine Republicans were convicted or pleaded guilty in the cases spawned by the investigation that then-Attorney General Tom Corbett launched in 2007. Even those of us who welcomed and cheered that sweep are at a loss, however, to find consistency in the sentencing of elected officials.

Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was recently sentenced to house arrest and penning mea culpa letters to fellow judges for much the same crime that has DeWeese sharing breakfasts with bank robbers, arsonists and murderers. She wasn't part of the Corbett investigation, but the same judge who put DeWeese in a state prison sentenced another former Democratic lawmaker convicted on similar charges, Stephen Stetler of York, to shorter time in a county jail.

None of that was the Superior Court's concern Wednesday, but the different treatment he received allows some sympathy for DeWeese. Some in his camp think prosecutors went after this former Democratic leader just to "bookend" the charges against former House Speaker John Perzel, a Republican now doing time in the multimillion-dollar Computergate scandal. It's also not hard to imagine that plenty of lawmakers escaped any charges for doing exactly what DeWeese did.

But making a case of selective prosecution for political reasons is not admissible in an appeal. Mr. Costopoulos could only argue the law, not the facts of the case.

So he argued it wasn't fair that the trial judge cut him off after he called only eight witnesses. The prosecution had witnesses who said DeWeese's admonitions against campaigning on state time amounted to a nod and a wink. His people ignored the supposed rule routinely.

But Mr. Costopoulos said he had about 20 more witnesses who would have testified that DeWeese would allow campaigning before 5 o'clock only if the workers used personal or "comp" time. Each of their stories was important to hear.

"If the commonwealth wasn't so freaked out about the impact of those witnesses," Mr. Costopoulos said, they would have been heard.

Maybe they'll be heard yet. Mr. Costopoulos says he shot a 7 1/2-foot black bear up in Alaska. His aim's been pretty good lately.

And if DeWeese does get a new trial and just gets convicted again, what then? Well, maybe he can get one of those neat letter-writing/house arrest sentences like Orie Melvin's.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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