DeWeese to learn his fate today
HARRISBURG — It’s a long shot, but Bill DeWeese could campaign for re-election to the state House from prison once he officially becomes a convicted felon today.
“It’s theoretically possible. It’s not likely. It’s not probable,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn of Millvale. “We expect to have the name of another Democratic candidate on the ballot in November.”
DeWeese, 62, a Waynesburg Democrat in office 35 years, likely will win his party’s nomination today. Unopposed on the ballot, he decided to run after his Feb. 6 conviction in Dauphin County Court on five felony charges involving use of taxpayer resources for campaigning.
The Tribune-Review could not reach him Monday, but DeWeese plans to resign his seat before Judge Todd Hoover sentences him, said his attorney, William C. Costopoulos.
“He’ll be making a statement that will be respectful of the court, respectful of the jury and respectful of the verdict,” Costopoulos said.
Hoover yesterday sentenced former DeWeese aide Sharon Rodavich, 56, to five years’ probation for her guilty pleas to conspiracy and conflict of interest in the corruption case. She must pay $35,000 restitution and a $5,000 fine, and work 750 hours of community service.
State prosecutors filed a memo urging Hoover to sentence DeWeese to a prison term that exceeds sentencing guidelines. Senior Deputy Attorney General Kenneth Brown said DeWeese forced legislative employees to work illegally on his political campaigns under the threat of being fired and his behavior amounts to “an assault on our democracy.”
Brown said DeWeese’s claims of innocence and his campaign for another House term show contempt for the jury system.
Republican Mark Fischer, a businessman who serves on Waynesburg council, and political novice George Toothman are seeking the Republican nomination for DeWeese’s seat. DeWeese in 2010 defeated Republican Richard Yeager by about 800 votes in the general election. In the primary he faced two challengers, and beat Greene County Commissioner Pam Snyder, who came closest, by more than 1,000 votes.
No law prohibits DeWeese from running in the general election, said Clancy Meyer, an attorney who serves as House parliamentarian. The state constitution bars him from remaining a House member after sentencing finalizes his conviction, though the House has final say on whether to seat a member, Meyer said.
If DeWeese continues as a candidate, “it would make an already sad situation sadder,” said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “The wiggle room in our election rules doesn’t necessarily prohibit that from happening.”
In February, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that DeWeese could remain on today’s primary ballot because he had not been sentenced. Since the jury on Feb. 6 found him guilty of theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest, DeWeese has said he would keep his options open. Staying on the ballot could give him a chance to win and be seated in January, if he also won a quick court appeal.
After the verdict, DeWeese told The Associated Press: “If I were to exit the stage in April, having been renominated and benefiting from my name being on the November ballot, I would certainly hope that the appropriate (courts) would give prompt and fair hearing to appeals and that, if and when vindicated, I could return to the hall of the House.”
Such a statement is “vintage Bill DeWeese,” said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College. “He looks at the half glass full. It’s the strength of character that has propelled him through his political career.”
Costopoulos said a legal appeal and a political campaign follow “separate and unrelated tracks,” and only if those tracks converge could DeWeese hang onto his seat.
“None of it has any meaning until I win an appeal,” Costopoulos said, though he could not say whether he plans to seek an expedited appeal.
The notion of a convicted felon campaigning from behind bars might sound preposterous, but “we’ve elected dead guys” in Pennsylvania, said GOP consultant Charlie Gerow of Harrisburg. Voters elected former Sen. Jim Rhoades, R-Schuylkill County, in 2008 after he died in a car accident in October and his name stayed on the ballot.
DeWeese served stints as House speaker and Democratic leader.
“He was an extraordinarily flamboyant and often provocative legislator who relished the accoutrements of power,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist with Franklin & Marshall College. He said someone likely would sue to remove DeWeese if he continues as a candidate.