HARRISBURG -- Nearly three years since word first surfaced of lawmakers giving publicly funded bonuses for campaign work, the first case in the Bonusgate corruption scandal is coming to trial.
Former state Rep. Sean Ramaley of Beaver County is alleged to have had only a minor role in the corruption scheme, but his case will get major attention, particularly from fellow defendants who aren't scheduled for trial for another six weeks.
The proceedings, which begin tomorrow, could set the tone for the rest of the cases, so defendants' attorneys will be observing keenly.
Joel Sansone, attorney for former state Rep. Mike Veon, plans to come from Pittsburgh to watch prosecutors in action. He's more comfortable behind the defense table, but next week he'll be on a hard wood bench with courtroom observers.
"I want to see whether the case they have is any better than it looks. Based on what we've seen in discovery, it looks like they just don't have much" on Mr. Ramaley, Mr. Veon or the other 10 House Democrats charged, Mr. Sansone said.
The Ramaley case will be good practice for prosecutors, too, Mr. Sansone said.
"They get to try out their evidence on a smaller case," he said.
Mr. Ramaley was charged with six criminal counts, fewer than any other defendant charged in the first round of arrests.
Mr. Ramaley, 34, is accused of collecting a state paycheck for five months in 2004 as an aide to Mr. Veon while he did little or no work. Instead, he used the time to run for state office, prosecutors say.
He subsequently was elected to the state House, where he represented the Economy area for four years. He intended to follow that with a run for Senate but dropped out of that race after his arrest last year.
He was charged with four counts of theft, one count of conflict of interest and one count of criminal conspiracy.
Until this month, only Democrats had been charged. Recently, however, Mr. Corbett's team charged 10 people associated with the House Republican caucus with using state resources for computer technology used to conduct political campaigns.
"One of the things you would expect to come out in this first trial is a test of the defense that the Bonusgate prosecution was politically motivated," said Stephen Stallings, a former federal prosecutor who now is a defense attorney in white-collar crime cases. He is not affiliated with any of the Bonusgate defendants.
Phil Ignelzi of Pittsburgh, who represents Mr. Ramaley, "is a fantastic attorney. If there's anyone who has the ability to articulate that kind of a defense, it's Phil," Mr. Stallings said.
"But, Phil may decide not to run with that. He knows juries are very, very astute. They'll see through nonsense, so if Phil doesn't have the goods, he won't present it."
If he does, it will be up to Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Lewis to decide whether to admit it. His rulings could have implications for other Bonusgate defendants scheduled to appear before him in January.
Mr. Ignelzi declined to comment but has previously alleged that Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican, pursued the high-profile corruption investigation to advance his gubernatorial aspirations.
Kevin Harley, spokesman for Mr. Corbett, declined to comment.
The first hurdle attorneys for both sides will face is jury selection, and that will be no simple matter.
"The publicity has been overwhelming. You're not going to be able to find a lot of jurors who haven't heard about Bonusgate, so there the variable is going to be how open-minded they are," Mr. Stallings said. "And if you do find someone who had never heard of this investigation then you'd have a juror that has very little intellectual curiosity at all."
For Mr. Ignelzi, the case will cap a 21-year career in private practice. Mr. Ramaley's is the last case he will take to trial before he's sworn in as a judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in January.
The match-up between Mr. Ignelzi and tough-as-nails prosecutor Tony Krastek is drawing attention even from attorneys who aren't connected with the case.
"It's going to be a heavyweight battle," said Mr. Stallings.
Tracie Mauriello can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-2141.