DeWeese stunned by charges in corruption probe
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HARRISBURG - Bill DeWeese says he came to this town as a post-Watergate reformer, a man with a mission sometimes obscured by the cut-and-thrust of Capitol politics in a culture he says he worked to change, helping the very investigation that yesterday upended his political career.
"In the '70s, '80s, '90s, the early 2000s, I think we had an upside-down value system. It was inherently a part of the political culture, not only of our capitol building but of another 49 capitol buildings throughout the land," Mr. DeWeese said yesterday in a lengthy interview, during which he discussed his early years to the days leading up to the grand jury presentment that accused him of using office staff for politics.
What was missing, he said, was a clear line about how far people could go in an environment where government leaders breathe the air of the politics that put them here in the first place.
"We did not think it was a criminal practice, because so much of what we did was to try to get elected and re-elected. It was just a part of that culture and people never saw that bright line that in retrospection we should see more clearly," he said.
At the same time, he was clearly stunned that, after 36 months of handing over whatever documents and records prosecutors requested, at points steering them to future defendants such as former state Rep. Frank Lagrotta, D-Lawrence, and members of his own staff, he faced counts for a practice that was once the standard here: putting staffers to work on political chores.
"I cooperated - I'm in my 36th month of flat-out cooperation with this investigation," he said.
H. William DeWeese arrived in Harrisburg in the wake of Watergate, succeeding Donald Davis, a legislator who had a fatal illness, in a special election. He was a young man in a hurry to change the way things are done in this city, which was still recovering from its own series of scandals that had laid low state legislators, county party chairmen and members of the administration of then-Gov. Milton Shapp.
He joined a group of young Turks who tangled with the leadership of then-Democratic Leader James J. Manderino, and built alliances with a new generation of House members determined to overturn the old order.
He watched Watergate unfold in the summer he spent at the Marine base in Okinawa. A mediocre student at Wake Forest, where he played second base for the college baseball team, Mr. DeWeese said he was struck by the need for change in the system.
The day he left the Marine Corps, he visited the federal building in San Diego, where he put in applications with the FBI, the Secret Service and, for good measure, the CIA.
When he returned to Waynesburg, where his father sold cars, Mr. DeWeese heard about another job opening: The local state House member was leaving.
He ran, won, and arrived here in 1977, joining forces with a squad of young Democrats willing, even eager, to butt heads with the established order then run by House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis and Mr. Manderino, the legendary majority leader known for his heavy hand when it came to party discipline.
DeWeese comrades sometimes included state Reps. Mike Dawida, Tom Michlovic, Tom Murphy and Allen Kukovich.
"Watergate was a fulcrum that lifted them into the public arena," Mr. DeWeese said.
"We certainly did buck up against Big Jim from time to time, but he was the dominant persona on the floor and most of our efforts did not meet with success," Mr. DeWeese said. "It was a different culture in those days and from the 1970s and 80s and 90s and early 2000, the culture was one that had very little alteration."
That culture, as outlined in yesterday's presentment, included a wholesale conflation of state and political duties.
As he grew in the caucus, first to whip, then leader and, for a period during the 1990s, to the post of House speaker, Mr. De-Weese, too, was criticized for taking on the old ways.
He also was colorful, employing often rococo language, pluperfect tenses and a vocabulary that hinted at heavy thesaurus reading. In his Capitol office he often dispensed with a chair and sat on a large, inflated ball for at-desk exercise.
There were, too, the yearly self-improvement projects he embarked on in the 1990s, what the man who barely made it through Wake Forest came to call his "Moose Lodge Master's Degree."
"I wanted to be able to talk to every man a little bit about the Civil War or the History of the American Revolution or World War II," he said. He says he wanted to be the guy the Moose Lodge or civic group would turn to if a scheduled speaker couldn't make it.
In due course, he would take on a subject each year: 1994, the American Revolution; 1995, Shakespeare; 1996, the history of American labor. The list stretched on. On travels, he would schedule lunches and meetings with professors at state colleges.
At the same time, things were running awry. After a ferocious 2006 effort, the Democrats recaptured the state House of Representatives. The success put Mr. De-Weese in line to become speaker, a job he was denied when a handful of party members bucked him. As a compromise, he became majority leader. Already, things were unraveling with a newspaper report that Mr. DeWeese's name had appeared on a letter to some House staff congratulating them on pay bonuses and advising them to stay quiet about it. Mr. DeWeese says the letter went out under his name but that he did not understand they went beyond the ordinary year-end bonuses.
"I talked to my staff and within hours, 24, 36 hours, I put out an e-mail within short order that said to my senior staff, 'Cooperate, tell the truth, destroy nothing.' "
He blamed his longtime colleague and partner in power, former minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver, his chief of staff, Michael Manzo, and director of administration, Scott Brubaker, with concocting the bonus scheme. All three men were later charged, in part on the basis of e-mails Mr. DeWeese said he turned over to prosecutors. He himself was not charged.
At the same time, he said, he embarked on a series of reforms and a code of ethics - things he had once eschewed - and became a promoter of an expanded public record law.
"We were doing everything we could to turn the aircraft carrier around, to change the culture."
But with Mr. Manzo now cooperating with grand jurors, and former staff member Kevin Sidella cooperating under a grant of immunity, Mr. DeWeese found himself accused of using his office staff, both here and in Waynesburg, for political chores - something his defenders say was so common that scores of legislators could have been prosecuted.
The charges had made nary a blip in Mr. DeWeese's home base of Waynesburg yesterday afternoon, though people in the rural Greene County seat were well aware of the controversies swirling around the town's native son the past few years.
"Everybody's a ... crook today," said Alex Simpson, 76, between spits of chewing tobacco. "They've been trying to get him for years. Every time you turn around they're getting somebody else."
Mike Perry, 56, a retired coal miner and registered Democrat, said: "A lot of people would like to see a fresh face in the seat." He noted how Republican Greg Hopkins nearly toppled Mr. DeWeese in the 2006 general election. "But older people will always vote for him - change for them is something not worth doing."
"He's spent so many years in there," said Mark Taylor, 50, "and people are tired of that."
Some said Mr. DeWeese's local office off Route 21 - where staffers would not talk to reporters yesterday - is pretty good at constituent work, despite Mr. Corbett's claims that it was a campaign center. Candy store owner Joyce Modar said one of the staffers once delivered her paperwork for a new driver's license - on her lunch hour - after her wallet was stolen from the store. "I've had good services from them," she said
Last night, waiting to decide his next move, out of the House leadership under a rule that automatically removes its members when they have been charged, Mr. DeWeese, now a rank-and-file member with a storm cloud hanging above him, contemplated his next move.
He found comfort in one thing: grand jurors found nothing to charge when it came to the bonuses. He insisted from the start that he wasn't part of that scheme and says that look as they might, nobody will find it.
"Every rock in my driveway has been turned over," he said.
First Published December 16, 2009 12:00 am