Pa. Capitol portraits display plenty of conviction

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HARRISBURG -- All summer long, tourists pour through the state Capitol, admiring the building's sweeping marble staircase, craning their necks to see the gold adorning the rotunda and examining the Moravian floor tiles depicting Pennsylvania history.

They also view portraits of past House and Senate leaders lining the building's hallways -- portraits that include several former legislators now in prison on a variety of corruption-related charges.

There's Bill DeWeese, speaker of the House in 1993 and 1994, a Democrat now serving a 2 1/2-to-5-year term at Retreat State Prison in northeastern Pennsylvania for a corruption conviction.

John Perzel, a Republican who served as speaker from 2003-2006, also has his picture hanging in the Gallery of Speakers' Portraits; he's now in the minimum-security Laurel Highlands prison in Somerset, serving a term of 30 months to 5 years.

On the Senate side of the building, that chamber's former president pro tempore, Robert Mellow, is also remembered with a portrait, despite having been sentenced to 16 months in federal prison on a public corruption charge.

Despite the portrait gallery resembling a rogues' gallery in some places, the pictures likely aren't going anywhere. There doesn't seem to be any organized movement to have them removed, and legislative officials see them as part of Pennsylvania history -- for better or worse.

"Our view is that it is a historical fact that [Mellow] was president pro tem of the Senate," said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for the Republican Senate caucus.

Similarly, Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats, said that "the portraits reflect the history of the House, and the recent speakers ... They're meant to offer visitors and legislators something to reflect on."

In fact, some visitors might have more interest in seeing the portraits of these particular legislators, noted Clancy Myer, the House parliamentarian. Mr. Myer started the gallery on the House side in 1988 to showcase recent speakers and notable early speakers such as Andrew Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.

There's no explanation of any kind next to Perzel's, DeWeese's or Mellow's pictures to note that their careers as legislators ended in disgrace, though Mr. Myer noted a booklet given out on the House side containing laudatory biographies of the speakers does briefly mention how DeWeese and Perzel left office: DeWeese resigned in April 2012, upon being sentenced for charges related to Bonusgate, and Perzel was defeated for re-election in November 2010, prior to pleading guilty for his role in the same scandal.

When asked if the portraits set a bad example, Mr. Patton said the presence of the portraits themselves is neutral and the placement of DeWeese's and Perzel's portraits predated any charges being brought against them.

"The example is set by each individual lawmaker in his or her career," he said.

Mr. Patton also noted former Speaker Herb Fineman's portrait also appears on the wall; Fineman, a Philadelphia Democrat, resigned in May 1977 after being indicted for obstruction of justice.

Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, noted the Fineman portrait set the precedent for the more recent ones to remain as well.

"I'm not saying it's right or it's wrong. I'm saying that's the precedent," he said.

Reaching back even further into Pennsylvania political history, the Capitol's grand rotunda area features a large marble statue of Matthew Stanley Quay, a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania in the 1880s who was immensely corrupt, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of good-government group Common Cause.

"It certainly doesn't send a great message when you have convicted people being honored in the halls of the Capitol," he said.

state

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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