Portraits of convicted Pennsylvania lawmakers receive an asterisk
July 16, 2014 12:13 AM
The official state Capitol portrait of former House Speaker Bill DeWeese.
By Karen Langley / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG — On a quiet morning at the Pennsylvania Capitol, footnotes were added to portraits recognizing four past leaders of the House and Senate.
The paintings of former House speakers Bill DeWeese, John Perzel and Herbert Fineman and photo of former Senate president pro tem Bob Mellow will continue to hang in the Capitol halls. But visitors now will see that in addition to serving as the top-ranking legislative official in their chambers, each was guilty of felony crime and sentenced to prison.
The new plaques were installed Tuesday on the instruction of House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. Aides to both said members had questioned leaving the portraits hanging without caveat between those of other recent or historically significant House speakers and Senate presidents pro tem.
“There’s two schools of thought: Do you just take them down, or do you do something?” said Steve Miskin, spokesman for Mr. Smith. “You can’t change history, and this is a part of our historic past. So we thought this was a good compromise.”
Told by a reporter of the change, DeWeese, who was released from prison in March, said he often introduces himself “as one of the most infamous ex-cons west of the Allegheny mountain range.”
“I guess this codicil just enhances the narrative,” he said. “I know Sam and Joe pretty well, and I hold them in high esteem. They would have to do a whole lot more than this to make me not want to have dinner with them.”
DeWeese, a Greene County Democrat who was speaker in 1993 and 1994, served nearly two years for convictions on corruption charges. Prosecutors said he used public resources for political gain by compelling legislative workers to do campaign work. Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican who served as speaker from 2003 to 2006, also left prison earlier this year after serving time for corruption.
Down the hall from their paintings is the portrait of Fineman, a Philadelphia Democrat who resigned as speaker of the House in 1977 after being convicted of obstruction of justice. And across the Capitol rotunda is a portrait of Mellow, a Lackawanna County Democrat who pleaded guilty in 2012 to mail fraud and tax evasion.
Among the legislators who took issue with the portraits was Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, who said he first spoke with Mr. Smith around the time DeWeese and Perzel were sentenced.
“If you’re going to recognize the fact they were the speaker of the House, you also need to recognize the fact they left the House under bad circumstances,” Mr. Grell said.
Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, had proposed taking down the portraits.
“We thought this was an appropriate answer to the issue of acknowledgement of the crime,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff and legal counsel to Mr. Scarnati. “We recognize that we all have our scars and we all have failings, but in this case it was a public failing, and that’s why we took this step.”
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