Misconduct case begins for Perzel

Former Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, left, and his attorney Fortunato Perri, right, depart the Dauphin County Courthouse Wednesday, Aug. 31, in Harrisburg, Pa. Perzel entered a guilty plea Wednesday to two counts of conflict of interest, two counts of theft and four counts of conspiracy. — AP PHOTO/BRADLEY C BOWER

Opening statements are expected to begin for a trio of defendants in the corruption case of former Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel.

In November 2009, Perzel, a Republican politician with a long history in Philadelphia, was among 10 people who were charged in a case alleging that taxpayers’ dollars were used to facilitate the creation of special computer programs and other resources that gave the Republican Party an advantage in elections.

As a result of the investigation, Perzel and six co-defendants pleaded guilty. Three defendants — former House GOP Whip Brett Feese, former Feese aide Jill Seaman and Brian Preski, former chief of staff for Perzel — went on trial on Monday.

Like former state Sen. Vince Fumo, Perzel and his associates were the focus of a lengthy investigation by law enforcement authorities. Perzel pleaded guilty to eight of 82 counts resulting from a state corruption probe that included charges of conflict of interest, conspiracy and theft.

“The truth is that as the legislative leader of my caucus, I oversaw the spending of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, and I bear the responsibility for the improprieties that occurred in the spending of those dollars,” Perzel said in a prepared statement after his arrest. “It was up to me to see that taxpayer funds were spent only for the betterment of the people of Pennsylvania, and not for my political benefit or that of my party. To the people of Pennsylvania; to the voters who put their trust in me for the 32 years that I had the privilege of serving the 172nd District; and to my family and friends, I want to express my profound regret for my actions. You had a right to expect better from me, and I am sorry that I let you down.”

Perzel served as House Speaker from April 2003 until November 2006.

According to the state grand jury’s investigation, inquiries into allegations of misconduct began near the end of January 2007, focusing on large amounts of taxpayer monies that were allegedly secretly paid as bonuses to employees of state legislators, and then widened.

“Since 2007, the Office of the Attorney General has been investigating the potential misuse of public monies within the four caucuses: House Democratic, House Republican, Senate Republican and Senate Democrat of the Pennsylvania legislature. In its ensuing investigation of the House Republican Caucus, this Grand Jury has uncovered a concerted plan to use taxpayer funds, employees and resources for political campaign purposes.”

Eric S. Ruth, who worked in the House Republican technology office, also pleaded guilty along with Perzel and both men subsequently agreed to cooperate with investigators. In return, prosecutors dropped dozens of counts against each of them.

Perzel's guilty pleas amounted to four sets of two charges, each consisting of theft or conflict of interest. Those charges also included conspiracy. He faces up to 24 years in prison.

“Perzel developed a scheme, or a cover story, that the databases and programs were for constituent services, and would be available to all House Republican members and their staff,” said Governor Tom Corbett, when he served as attorney general, in a prepared statement. “In reality, Perzel was able to use the data and software programs for his own campaigns, and for the campaign arm of the caucus, the House Republican campaign committee.”

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