Habay's political future in doubt

Once-rising GOP star in House faces charges

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Little more than 10 years ago, Jeff Habay rolled into Harrisburg marked as a rising star in the Republican Party. He was young, ambitious, conservative and had helped his party take control of the state House by winning in a traditionally Democratic area.

Rep. Jeff Habay

Today, he's fighting for his political life and defending himself against two sets of criminal charges that developed from political and personal battles with his opponents.

When he became the youngest member of the state House at 28, Habay already was a political veteran. He had served as township treasurer in O'Hara and run as a sacrificial lamb against popular Democratic Allegheny County Sheriff Gene Coon.

In the 1994 primary, he ran for the 30th District seat in the state House, where veteran Republican Rick Cessar, of Shaler, had decided to retire. Habay defeated another young Republican, Daniel L. Anderson, who had served in the House before his district was combined with Cessar's district.

In the general election, Habay squared off against Democrat Mark F. Hannan. With help from then-Gov. Tom Ridge, campaigning in the district in his behalf, Habay overcame a Democratic registration edge to help his party take control of the House for the first time in 12 years.

With that background, he appeared poised to be on the fast track in Harrisburg. He seemed to have the right pedigree, belonged to the party in charge and knew the right people to groom him for future success.

Here's how The 1995-96 Guidebook to Pennsylvania Legislators described Habay: "For a young man of obvious ambition, 1995 was a perfect year to win a seat in the House. For the first time in 12 years, Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor's office. Habay was thus spared the fate of becoming a genial backbencher in a party out of power."

Rich Stampahar, who worked with Habay as party chairman for O'Hara and later Allegheny County, said a lot was expected from Habay. But after 10 years as a legislator, although he remains very popular in his home district, he never seemed to rise through the Harrisburg hierarchy to a position of power.

"I just can't believe how much things have changed," Stampahar said.

In Harrisburg, Habay came across as a one-issue candidate -- he was against any form of tax increase -- and he didn't always fall into line with leadership, especially on spending or tax issues.

Perhaps the best indication of the GOP's feelings toward Habay came in early 2001, when committee members chose a candidate to run for state Sen. Melissa Hart's 40th district seat after she moved into Congress.

He finished third to Rep. Jane Orie, of McCandless, and Bradford Woods Councilman Mike Turzai. At the time, Habay had more time in office than either of the others.

"I just don't know what went wrong," said Stampahar, who was accused of influencing the vote to replace Hart. "He started out as someone with a bright future. I just don't see that many things were accomplished. It just doesn't seem he moved up much."

Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said Habay's career wasn't unusual.

"There are a lot of people who come with a lot of promise who don't seem to fulfill it," Madonna said. "[Habay] certainly went into the Legislature with a lot of promise, but mostly, now, he's spending his time defending himself."

Because of Habay's legal problems, Republican leadership in Harrisburg is reluctant to talk about him, even in general terms. He's facing two sets of charges, both stemming from a political fight with a former employee.

Last year, Habay was fined $13,000 by the State Ethics Commission for using his state-paid office employees to organize political fund-raisers, process political mailings, solicit donations, build election signs and collect signatures on nominating petitions. He also is awaiting trial on criminal charges filed by the state attorney general's office for theft of services for the same incidents.

In a new case filed this week by the Allegheny County district attorney's office, Habay faces 20 charges. They include conflict of interest and theft of services for continuing to use state employees for personal or campaign work, falsely accusing a political enemy of mailing him a letter with a potentially dangerous white powder, and retaliating against political enemies by distributing packets of information about them on cars at Indiana Township Community Day and at their places of employment.

Habay, who now lives in Shaler, won't comment on the charges on the advice of his attorney, James Ecker. Ecker said Habay will turn himself in for arraignment Tuesday before District Judge Robert Dzvonick, of Shaler, and will plead not guilty.

Both sets of charges stem from Habay's troubles with the same set of opponents. Problems began in 2000 after Habay fired staffer Rebecca Radich, who then blew the whistle on the use of state employees for campaign work. Radich and the family of Dan Anderson also called for an audit of Habay's campaign fund, which found irregularities, but no criminal activity.

The new charges say Habay retaliated against Radich, her husband, George, and the Andersons for prompting investigations of his activities.

Habay's brother, O'Hara Councilman Jim Habay, said all the charges were "trumped up" and that his brother "is not capable of doing that kind of stuff."

"We are a tight, working-class family," Jim Habay said. "It's unfair. How come nobody ever investigates these people who keep accusing my brother? This is nothing but a vendetta."

The latest charges have shaken the faith of Habay's staunchest supporters, such as Louise Bradley, a McCandless GOP committee member.

"This really seems like it's a lot of charges," Bradley said. "I want to believe him. If it's all true, it sure isn't the Jeff Habay I knew."

Meanwhile, Democrats are waiting in the wings for an opportunity to go after Habay's seat, either in 2006, when his term expires, or earlier if he's convicted and removed from office. Last year, Habay was unopposed for his fifth House term.

"We'll look forward to finding somebody to win that seat back for the Democrats," said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, head of the party's election finance committee. "I have a great deal of confidence we can do that."

Bradley said she was not concerned about Habay's political future. "I think his political career is the least of his worries. He needs to get this taken care of and get back to his family."

Ed Blazina can be reached at eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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