DeWeese, Stetler charged in state corruption probe
Attorney General Tom Corbett holds a news conference yesterday in Harrisburg on new Bonusgate charges.
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HARRISBURG - A trio of Democrats, including former House speaker and longtime legislative powerhouse Bill DeWeese and a member of Gov. Ed Rendell's cabinet were charged yesterday in the latest chapter in a three-year probe into corruption in the General Assembly.
State Revenue Secretary Stephen H. Stetler resigned hours before Attorney General Tom Corbett announced charges against him, Mr. DeWeese and Sharon Rodavich, a longtime staffer in Mr. DeWeese's district office in Waynesburg, Greene County.
All three are accused of misdirecting state resources, namely staff salaries and office time, toward Democratic campaigns in House elections.
Mr. Stetler, of York County, served eight terms in the Legislature before deciding not to seek re-election in 2006 in the wake of a voter backlash over a legislative pay raise. While in the House, he served as chairman of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
He resigned yesterday after informing the governor's staff that he is being charged in connection with an ongoing criminal probe into corruption in the state Legislature.
Mr. DeWeese is charged with one count of conflict of interest, four counts of theft and one count of criminal conspiracy.
The charges do not implicate Mr. DeWeese, 59, of Waynesburg, in the payment of taxpayer-funded bonuses to state employees who were used in campaigns in 2004 and 2006 - the scandal that triggered a three-year probe by Attorney General Tom Corbett.
Rather, he is accused of assigning a member of his Capitol office staff, Kevin Sidella, to fundraising chores during state work hours. Mr. Sidella testified before the grand jury this past summer under a grant of immunity.
The grand jury said that both Mr. Sidella and Michael Manzo, Mr. DeWeese's former chief of staff who is facing charges in the bonus investigation, testified that Mr. Sidella did little legislative work and that "it was always clear from the interview on, that Sidella's primary function was to be DeWeese's campaign fundraiser."
Ms. Rodavich was charged with using her role in Mr. DeWeese's district office as "outreach director" to organize his political campaigns. Yesterday's presentment described her as a harsh taskmaster who commanded office staff to concentrate on political chores, while rarely showing up in the office herself, even while accumulating hundreds of hours in sick leave, vacation, and personal leave.
Between 1999 and 2007, the grand jury said, Ms. Rodavich earned in excess of $230,000 in salary.
At one point, according to the grand jury, a DeWeese staff member named Carol Bohach was transferred to another office after questioning the propriety of the political work on state time.
When she raised that issue during the 2006 primary, she told grand jurors, Ms. Rodavich replied, "We have always done it this way. Bill has always let us do this."
The grand jury's findings now mean that two former House speakers are under pending charges. Last month, the grand jury accused former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, of misusing more than $10 million in state monies to purchase databases he used in Republican House contests.
Mr. DeWeese was absent from the floor yesterday as the House was gaveled into session to debate a bill to allow table games in the state's casinos.
The three were the only state officials or employees accused by the grand jury, though the document included extensive interviews with members of the DeWeese staff as well as the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
In accordance with House rules, Mr. DeWeese must step down from his leadership post, and the caucus has 14 days to elect a new whip.
Ms. Rodavich, 53, of Carmichaels, faces one count of conflict of interest, four counts of theft and one count of criminal conspiracy.
Mr. Stetler, 60, of York, is charged with one count of conflict of interest, four counts of theft, and one count of criminal conspiracy.
Among allegations against Mr. Stetler is that, while a member of the House, he assigned a staff member to work on a mayoral race in his hometown of York.
Counts against Mr. Stetler include allegations that he vetoed plans to shift opposition research - the gathering of negative information on election opponents - from state-paid House employees to private firms. Dan Wiedemer, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, a political arm of the caucus, told grand jurors that plans were met with flat rejection by Mr. Stetler, who chaired the committee at the time.
"He was presented with the option of doing it legally and paying for it out of campaign funds, and he chose not to do it," Mr. Corbett said during a news conference yesterday. "He basically said, 'Why would we change a system that's already working well?' "
HDCC political director Jessica Walls told the grand jury that Mr. Stetler's attitude was "We have this resource right here. Why do we need to do that?"
Mr. Stetler also was accused of directing various House staff to do campaign work on legislative time.
The grand jury also said that caucus employees were encouraged to accumulate compensatory time that they would then use to "volunteer" on political campaigns. As part of that arrangement, "members and supervisors required employees to sit at their desks long after normal working hours, doing nothing, thereby accumulating hours and hours of fraudulent [compensatory] time."
Mr. Stetler also is accused of moving a HDCC employee, Erin Madison, to the state payroll in late 2004 as a research analyst. The grand jury presentment quoted her saying it was clear to her that she was expected to do campaign fundraising during state hours.
Mr. Rendell, during a morning news conference on the state budget, said he was saddened by Mr. Stetler's departure from the cabinet but cautioned against drawing conclusions as to his former revenue secretary's guilt or innocence. He pointed to the recent acquittal of one of the early Bonusgate defendants, former state Rep. Sean Ramaley, D-Beaver.
"You cannot have a high-ranking public official function with a cloud like that over his head," Mr. Rendell said of Mr. Stetler.
The governor wasted no time filling the post. Yesterday he announced the nomination of C. Daniel Hassell, the Revenue Department's deputy secretary for tax policy. Mr. Hassell will serve as acting secretary, pending Senate confirmation.
Mr. Rendell said that the recent spate of prosecutions of high-profile politicians, from former state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, to former House Speaker Perzel, has been dispiriting.
"As a human being, I feel sad, because many of these people were my friends," Mr. Rendell said.
The presentment came three weeks after word surfaced that three top Democrats, including two members of the House leadership, had received letters inviting them to appear before the jury. Such letters have traditionally preceded the filing of charges.
One of the leaders who received a letter from the grand jury, House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, yesterday was cornered outside an elevator by reporters and asked about his status.
"I have no comment on this investigation," he said. "I have been consistent about that."
Mr. Corbett, a Republican running for governor, would not say whether his investigation of the state House is finished.
"I can never tell who is going to come in and who may give us information. I don't have a crystal ball to say where we are in the greater scheme of things," he said. "Many over in the Legislature would like to know that everything has come to a conclusion but ... we follow the evidence where it leads, and that's what we're doing."
So far the investigation has yielded the arrest of 15 people associated with the House Democratic caucus and 10 associated with the House Republican caucus.
First Published December 16, 2009 12:00 am