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Who's 'assaulting' whom?

HARRISBURG

The Pennsylvania Legislature is under assault by the Attorney General’s Office. Or so says ex-Rep. Bill DeWeese’s lawyer.

William C. Costopoulos was referring to the criminal case against DeWeese and 24 others begun by former Attorney General and now-Gov. Tom Corbett.

“I do think someday we will look back at this point in our history … and say, ‘What were we doing here?,'” he says.

Nils Frederiksen, the spokesman for the AG’s office, says that prosecutor’s office hasn’t assaulted the Legislature with investigations.

“We have arrested criminals.”

DeWeese, as were 20 other legislators and staffers, was convicted of using public resources for campaigns — using taxpayers’ dollars for politicking. It gave them an edge over any challenger.

More than 170 Democrat House staffers, for instance, “volunteered” to work in a 2005 special election near Allentown. Many later received state-paid bonuses for their work.

Republicans spent millions on computer equipment aimed at helping them win re-election.

House Democrats put together mailers and campaign brochures on the fifth floor of the Capitol.

Some leaders, including DeWeese, had their own campaign fundraisers on their state-paid staff.

Using state workers to do campaign work had gone on for decades. What happened, though — from the 1970s through the 1990s — was growth of the legislative staff as part of the movement that had begun to “professionalize” the Legislature and move from a part-time to a full-time Legislature.

As political machines in the counties faded, more campaign activity transferred to legislative caucuses, says G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

Over the past 10 years, the campaign work on state time and with state money has increased considerably.

It has been illegal. That’s why the pols tried to hide it.

Will revisionist historians someday look at the batch of current legislative leaders in prison, or heading there, more kindly?

Their defense is that everyone was doing it so it was wrong to single anyone out.

Moreover, the rules changed in the middle of the game with the prosecution of Jeff Habay — starting with a state Ethics Commission order in 2004, trial and conviction in 2005 and a 2006 Superior Court ruling upholding that conviction.

It is true that the Habay case became a springboard for additional prosecutions.

“It’s not like they were robbing a bank!” some observers might continue to say.

John Contino, director of the state Ethics Commission, testified at the trial of ex-Sen. Vincent Fumo — convicted in federal court of defrauding the Senate, a nonprofit and a seaport museum of nearly $4 million — that the use of public resources for campaigns is “an assault on democracy.”

It’s as bad as or worse than individual cases of bribery, he suggested.

And the deck is stacked against challengers at taxpayers’ expense.

It’s hard to say anyone at the Capitol, after the 2004 Ethics Commission case, didn’t know what they weren’t supposed to do.

DeWeese’s case was distinct from others in that he was not accused of large-scale campaigning at taxpayers’ expense like former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver Falls. DeWeese’s crimes totaled $116,000 — still a lot — but not in the millions.

What DeWeese was convicted of concerned only the use of workers in his own office.

Costopoulos walked it back a step, out of court, talking to reporters, saying some of the attorney general’s cases were justified and some were not.

It’s difficult to see the “assault” being committed on the institution by anyone other than the Legislature’s own leaders.

Brad Bumsted is the Trib’s state Capitol reporter. Call him at 717-787-1405. Email him at: [email protected].


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