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Penn Hills state Rep. DeLuca dismisses grand jury investigation as politics |

Penn Hills state Rep. DeLuca dismisses grand jury investigation as politics

Tony LaRussa
| Monday, April 13, 2009 12:00 a.m

State Rep. Tony DeLuca admits thinking at times during the past 26 years that he should have continued as a butcher in the family grocery.

“I’ve missed out on a lot of family things over the years, and I’ve had at least five close calls on the highway,” said the 70-year-old Democrat from Penn Hills, first elected in 1982. “And there’s been frustration when hard work on legislation went nowhere because of partisanship. Those are the times when you think, ‘Did I make the right choice?'”

Now DeLuca’s mettle is being tested again. His integrity is being challenged in a town where people quip that politics is a blood sport.

Four Penn Hills Democrats told the Trib last month they testified about DeLuca before a state grand jury. They claim he got government jobs for family members, used his legislative office and staff to run political campaigns, and improperly interfered with local issues. One of those who testified said only that she discussed “wide-ranging activities” that could be construed as misuse of public office.

DeLuca maintains he has done nothing illegal. He believes the investigation is a politically motivated effort by rival Democrats to tarnish his reputation.

A spokesman for state Attorney General Tom Corbett would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation exists.

“As long as I can remember, this has been the way politics have been in Penn Hills,” DeLuca said. “All I ask is that people not jump to conclusions, because in the end, they will learn that I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Hometown support

DeLuca, who hasn’t faced a serious re-election challenge in years, appears to enjoy broad support in Allegheny County’s second-largest municipality.

During a recent visit to the Penn Hills Senior Citizens Center, DeLuca was greeted with smiles, handshakes and hugs as he chatted during lunch.

“Tony’s a hell of a guy,” said Howard Douthett, 87, of Lincoln Road. “He’ll do anything he can for you and doesn’t ask anything in return. He doesn’t even ask you to vote for him. I’ve lived in this town for 50 years and can tell you, this stuff they are saying about him is just old-fashioned dirty politics.”

Andy Duff, a registered Republican, said DeLuca is one of the few candidates for whom he will cross party lines to support.

“Tony’s a good man. He’ll do anything he can to help you,” said Duff, 85, of Shenandoah Drive as he waited for his wife.

Duff recalled that several years ago, DeLuca helped him quickly replace a stolen handicapped-parking tag.

“He could have just told me to call PennDOT,” said Duff. “Instead, he took care of it. I don’t think he does that just for votes. He does it because he considers helping people part of his job.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and political analyst, as well as a Trib columnist, attributed DeLuca’s popularity to the attention he gives his constituents. It is characteristic of “an old-school politician who still does his politics one-on-one.”

“Tony’s a people person who likes the part where you get to shake hands and kiss the baby,” Mistick said.

Republican Jim McCollum, who is running for Penn Hills Council, said he is “amazed” by the way people treat DeLuca.

“They surround him like he’s royalty,” McCollum said. “I think if he held out his hand, they would kiss his ring. It’s pretty impressive.”

Ralph Oto, 79, chuckled when asked about the “rock star” treatment DeLuca sometimes receives.

“I think people just like him a lot and want to show it,” said Oto as he and his wife, Rita, loaded groceries in their car at a local supermarket. “He acts like he’s one of us.”

DeLuca balks at the suggestion he is some sort of kingpin of Penn Hills.

“I think people are friendly to me and treat me with respect because they genuinely like me and know that I work hard for them in Harrisburg,” DeLuca said. “I certainly don’t go around asking for special treatment. In fact, when people address me as ‘representative’ or ‘Mr. DeLuca,’ I ask them to please just call me Tony.”

Party squabbling

That members of his own party have testified against DeLuca is no surprise to political analysts.

“The Democrats have a long history of conducting their family fights out in public,” said Jerry Shuster, a political communications expert at Pitt. “The sort of accusations being made against DeLuca are pretty commonplace. But in the current political climate, with all the high-profile political corruption cases we’ve seen in the state, it’s getting a lot more attention.”

Mistick thinks the caustic political tone in Penn Hills is due, in part, to the migration from Pittsburgh to the suburbs after World War II.

“The people who moved out of the city when the GI Bill helped you get a nice home with a yard brought their politics with them,” he said. “While that old style of politics is gone in a lot of suburban towns, there are some places like Penn Hills where the game still resembles hardball instead of a pickup softball game.”

DeLuca moved to Penn Hills in 1955 from Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood. He continued to run the family’s grocery and butcher shop until he took his House seat.

DeLuca’s interest in politics began in the mid-1970s when he served as a Democratic committeeman and then helped draft Penn Hills’ home rule charter.

“We had a new government after the charter was approved, so I thought I might be able to contribute something to the community by being on council,” he said. DeLuca served on Penn Hills council for 5 1/2 years and as deputy mayor for two years.

Today, his son Anthony DeLuca Jr. is mayor, first elected six years ago. DeLuca Jr. also works for the state Auditor General’s Office and has sisters who work for the state Department of Revenue and the Turnpike Commission. The mayor’s wife and brother work for the local water authority. The Penn Hills mayor appoints two members to the authority’s board of directors.

“Just because I’m a state representative, does that mean my family doesn’t have the right to apply for a job with the state or any other government agency?” the elder DeLuca asked. “They got their jobs on their own.”

DeLuca brushes off the charge that he has the last word on what happens in Penn Hills government.

“I offer advice to the mayor like I would do to anybody in that seat,” DeLuca said. “I’m concerned about what happens in Penn Hills and I speak my mind about it, but that doesn’t mean I’m pulling the strings.

“There have been times when I disagreed with Anthony’s decisions, and I’ve let him know about it. But in the end, he’s his own man.”

Additional Information:

The DeLuca file

• Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-32nd House District, which includes Penn Hills, Blawnox, Verona and part of Plum.

• Age: 70

• Residence: Penn Hills

• Family: Married, four adult children, nine grandchildren

• Education: Westinghouse High School, Community College of Allegheny County

• Elected office: Penn Hills council, 1976-82; state House, 1983-present

• Legislative duties: chair, House Insurance Committee; serves on Game and Fisheries, Democratic Policy and Legislative Budget and Finance committees

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, or via Twitter .

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