DeWeese guilty of five felonies
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HARRISBURG -- A Dauphin County jury on Monday found longtime Democratic state representative and House Speaker Bill DeWeese guilty of all but one of six felony corruption charges resulting from a state legislative probe into the misuse of public resources.
The jurors largely agreed with prosecutors who claimed the Greene County legislator exerted his influence to compel legislative workers to campaign, using more than $100,000 of staff time and other state resources for his own political benefit. They found him guilty of three counts of theft, one count of conflict of interest and one count of conspiracy. He was acquitted on a single theft charge.
The jury took three days to reach the verdict in the scandal that came to be known as Bonusgate.
Mr. DeWeese's girlfriend and sister sobbed as the verdict was read.
Mr. DeWeese, 61, vowed to appeal the convictions and continue his campaign for re-election. Hours after the verdict was announced, he stood in a Capitol hallway, shaking hands with workers there and apologizing for missing a committee meeting.
After pledging to continue his legislative work, at least until his sentencing on April 24, Mr. DeWeese reminded reporters that his constituents twice have re-elected him since his name became linked to allegations that state workers had improperly performed campaign work.
"So the court of public opinion in those faraway and honorable townships and boroughs sanctioned my public duties in these sessions," he said. "And until the official jurisdictions limit my ability to serve, I shall hopefully maintain perfect attendance and a positive attitude."
He noted that he would be in attendance today at the budget address delivered by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who as attorney general filed the charges against Mr. DeWeese in 2009.
The investigation by Mr. Corbett's office followed a 2007 series of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports showing a correlation between sizeable, taxpayer-funded bonuses awarded to House Democratic staff members and their time spent campaigning. Mr. DeWeese was among the last three defendants to be charged in the investigation, which has resulted in the arrests of 25 individuals connected with the House Democratic and Republican caucuses.
Testimony during his seven-day trial repeatedly returned to those early bonus charges. Defense attorney William Costopoulos pointed to the investigation's snaring of Mr. DeWeese's former chief of staff, Mike Manzo, and Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver County, who served as his second-in-command, as signs that he was not in control of his caucus.
The lawmaker, who oversaw hundreds of caucus employees during his time as Democratic leader, trusted those colleagues with much of the day-to-day operations, Mr. Costopoulos said. As a result, Mr. DeWeese was unaware they had not followed proper procedures for separating political and legislative work, he argued.
State prosecutors countered that Mr. DeWeese played an intentional role. They pointed to emails he sent commending political work and directing an employee to be fired for not doing enough to campaign.
The prosecution also relied on testimony by former employees who said campaign work was central to their jobs. Those witnesses included Mr. Manzo, who testified against his ex-boss and is awaiting sentencing under a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to reduced charges.
Also testifying for the prosecution was a former district office worker, Sharon Rodavich, who was charged alongside Mr. DeWeese and pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and conflict of interest days before the lawmaker's trial began.
After Mr. DeWeese said he would seek another term in office, the prosecutor, Senior Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Brown, noted that people convicted of felonies cannot serve as lawmakers. House rules call for the chamber to begin removal proceedings after a member is sentenced.
"He's a convicted felon, and convicted felons, once they are sentenced, can't sit in the General Assembly," Mr. Brown said. "If he wants to spit in the face of the jury's verdict, I guess that's his prerogative."
Mr. DeWeese was on track to receive a six-figure pension once he left the Legislature, but state law prevents payments to people convicted of certain crimes, such as the theft charges, in relation to their employment. Once Mr. DeWeese is sentenced, staff for the state retirement system will review court documents to determine if those conditions were met.
Jeff Coleman, a former Republican state lawmaker who befriended Mr. DeWeese during his two terms in the House, said he sees in the case the effects of leaving behind an era that was without clear boundaries for political and legislative work.
"Bill DeWeese and the other survivors of a generation ago in the House and Senate had operated under old rules," he said. "The rules changed, they quickly adapted."
Mr. Coleman said the trial produced evidence that Mr. DeWeese and others had changed how they did business and drawn "a bright line" between the political and the legislative.
"In this case, though," he added, "it may have been a week or a day or a month too late."
Mr. DeWeese has made no secret of his belief that the probe was politically motivated. Prosecutors counter that Democrats and Republicans alike have been convicted or pleaded guilty.
Eleven Democrats and nine Republicans, including former GOP House Speaker John Perzel of Philadelphia, have been convicted or pleaded guilty, while two defendants were acquitted and charges against another were dropped. Former Rep. Stephen Stetler, D-York, is scheduled for trial later this year.
First Published February 7, 2012 12:00 am