DeWeese goes home after being sentenced
Bill DeWeese, former Pennsylvania state representative, greets supporters at Rohanna's Restaurant on Tuesday. DeWeese resigned from the House on the day he was sentenced to serve at least 21/2 years in prison. For a video, go to post-gazette.com.
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Bill DeWeese drove four hours from Harrisburg to Waynesburg Tuesday to an election-night gathering marking the last act of his 35-year political career.
Teary-eyed and clad in blue jeans and a black pullover, the Democrat made the journey home after a day in which he resigned his seat, was sentenced to at least 21/2 years in prison and collected thousands of votes from a district he's no longer eligible to serve.
Without any introduction, DeWeese walked into the restaurant where he dined as a boy, raised a hand to say hello and quickly headed back to some who continue to place him in the highest regard.
"This is family," the former state House speaker said hours after he was sentenced by a Dauphin County judge for directing legislative staffers to campaign on state time.
Though the sentencing on five felony counts rendered him ineligible to serve, DeWeese had chosen to run another term after his conviction on five of six felony counts of theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest, saying he hoped it would be overturned in time to let him take office again.
"This has not been a typical day," DeWeese said inside his black truck, moments before he entered Rohanna's Restaurant, where he held almost every election party since his first campaign. Inside, dozens of supporters -- some of whom worked on his first campaign -- waited to greet him with applause and hugs.
DeWeese maintained his innocence during the two years he awaited trial. He disputed claims by the prosecutor that he had shown contempt for the justice system.
"I remain unyieldingly respectful of this court, the jury and its verdict," he said in Harrisburg Tuesday afternoon. "I want to apologize to my beloved family, friends and to all those who believed in me."
He said no more about exactly what he was apologizing for. His attorney, William Costopoulos, said afterward that he will promptly appeal the convictions.
DeWeese is known as a lawmaker who is rarely at a loss for words but he left the courtroom on Tuesday without comment, stopping to embrace his tearful girlfriend before departing in the elevator.
He was unopposed in Tuesday's primary election, in which two Republicans also were vying to succeed him.
The state Constitution bars convicted felons from serving in the General Assembly, an exclusion that applied to the Waynesburg legislator immediately following his afternoon sentencing. He submitted a letter of resignation effective at noon on Tuesday, stepping down from the only job he's held since leaving the U.S. Marine Corps in 1975.
During the proceeding, Senior Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Brown argued that DeWeese should be judged more harshly in part because of his continued statements of innocence and his re-election efforts.
"He shows nothing but contempt for the hard work of this jury and of this court," Mr. Brown said. "There's no acceptance of responsibility."
In determining the sentence, Judge Todd Hoover said, he considered that DeWeese had taken advantage of his staffers and constituents.
"These taxpayer funds were used for political advantage and personal gain, and that's a violation of the public trust," Judge Hoover said.
He ordered DeWeese to report to prison on May 14 to serve 30 to 60 months. DeWeese must pay nearly $117,000 in restitution and $25,000 in fines.
He will appeal that sentence, and will ask the judge to release him on bail during that process. Mr. Brown said prosecutors will oppose that request.
"Bill DeWeese has given this commonwealth 36 years not only of service but of his life," Mr. Costopoulos said. "Some day we're going to look back at this point in time of our history and wonder what we're doing here."
With slightly more than seven months left in the legislative term, it's unclear whether he will be replaced prior to the start of the next session in January. House Republican spokesman Steven Miskin said the House speaker is inclined to call a special election for Mr. DeWeese's seat, but first intends to speak with officials from Greene, Fayette and Washington counties about the cost of a special election.
In the meantime, Mr. DeWeese's district office in Waynesburg will be kept open with a reduced staff to respond to constituent requests.
The veteran lawmaker's convictions arose from incidents from 2001 to 2006, during the later portion of his years leading the House Democratic caucus. Witnesses testified during a two-week trial that the lawmaker was aware of and expected political work to be performed alongside their legislative duties. Mr. DeWeese insisted he asked his staffers to request the proper leave from their positions before campaigning.
Waynesburg residents were split in their reaction to De-Weese's sentence.
Earlier in the day, DeWeese critics quietly expressed their skepticism of the 62-year-old while exiting the polls, saying they thought he deserved a harsher sentence or had spent too much time in office. Few of them would give their names because, as one woman said, in a small town "you never know when you're going to need something."
Outside a polling place in the center of the town of 4,000, Waynesburg Mayor Blair Zimmerman touted DeWeese as a "hometown" man who supported his region by providing infrastructure, creating jobs and helping local fire departments acquire grants.
Mr. Zimmerman, who said he dated DeWeese's sister while in high school, said, "His mom and dad were the salt of the earth and I know ... that he's a good man."
Less than a block down the street, Josh Sifuentes, 35, who moved to the small town last year, supported a write-in candidate, his father-in-law Mark Fischer. "I think they're operating with blinders on," Mr. Sifuentes said of Greene County residents who continue to support DeWeese because of his history with the town. "Guilty is guilty."
After DeWeese joined supporters at Rohanna's Tuesday night, his first campaign manager, Rudy Marisa, 78, looked on sadly. Moments before, he had been reflecting upon how DeWeese had built his first campaign by visiting people in their homes and at community meetings, gaining popularity as people discovered his inviting personality.
"In his mind, I think he's truthful," Mr. Marisa said, but "I think the judge and his representatives did what they needed to do."
Still, he added, "It's like Greene County lost an arm."
First Published April 25, 2012 10:42 pm