Corruption trial begins for ex-Pa. House leader

January 23, 2012 - 8:35 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A prosecutor on Monday described state Rep. Bill DeWeese as a "common thief" as the once-powerful Democrat became the first sitting Pennsylvania legislator to go on trial as part of a public corruption probe that started five years ago.

The Greene County lawmaker, whose 35-year career includes a stint as House speaker and a much longer tenure as Democratic floor leader, is accused of illegally using legislative employees for political campaigning and fundraising.

The first of several former DeWeese staffers who are expected to testify against their ex-boss told jurors they routinely did campaign and other non-legislative work for him while receiving legislative salaries.

In his opening statement, Senior Deputy Attorney General Ken Brown called DeWeese a "common thief with uncommon access" to other people's money.

"We're talking about public monies, monies paid by taxpayers, that were taken by this defendant and used for his own campaign work and for his own personal use," he said.

DeWeese's lawyer, William Costopoulos portrayed his client as an honest, hard-working lawmaker who misplaced his trust in his subordinates in the House Democratic caucus. He delegated responsibility for overseeing the hundreds of staffers to others, who failed to properly enforce ethical rules, Costopoulos said.

DeWeese is "not a hands-on guy," his lawyer said. "We're here because Bill DeWeese trusted everyone."

Michael Manzo, DeWeese's former chief of staff, said DeWeese's biggest strength was his ability to raise campaign money but that he could quickly break out of his detached management style if he sniffed a threat to his own political future.

"When he focused on something, he focused on it like a laser," said Manzo, who is among more than two dozen people arrested so far in the investigation and who testified for the state as part of a plea agreement. Manzo is expected to resume his testimony Tuesday.

Dauphin County Judge Todd Hoover opened the trial by banning reporters covering the trial from tweeting from the courtroom, citing a proposed rule involving the issue that the state Supreme Court is considering.

One prosecution witness described his and fellow staffers' involvement in an unusual — and unofficial — self-education program in which DeWeese read books, presided over dinners financed by lobbyists, and took out-of-state trips to expand his knowledge of different subjects that he selected annually. The Civil War, Jewish history, World War I and American literature were among them.

John Price, a former DeWeese policy analyst who now teaches history at the York campus of Penn State University, testified that members of DeWeese's staff handled the often-elaborate arrangements as part of their state jobs.

Monday's first prosecution witness, Patrick Grill, said he and other staffers in DeWeese's Harrisburg office regularly traveled to his district in Pennsylvania's southwestern corner to conduct opposition research and do other campaign work prior to primary and general elections.

They received their legislative salaries while DeWeese's campaign paid for hotel rooms, food and other expenses, Grill said, though he acknowledged such activities were supposed to be done off the public clock.

"We should have put in leave slips," said Grill, who testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution. "Timekeeping wasn't necessarily a big deal in our office. No one really ever checked up on it."

Costopoulos said that, as caucus leader, DeWeese banned political activity by legislative employees except on their own time, including compensatory time off and vacation days. It was up to others to track the paperwork, he said.

Grill, the caucus' assistant director of legislative policy and research, also recalled a meeting at which DeWeese threatened to fire some staffers who had complained about having to do campaign work.

Costopoulos cited the incident in his opening statement. He said DeWeese was behaving uncharacteristically in a moment of anger.

"The evidence will show he didn't have the heart to fire anyone and never did," he said.

The trial is expected to last two to three weeks, according to lawyers in the case.

DeWeese, who has spent much of his 35-year legislative career in the House leadership, faces four counts of theft and one count each of conspiracy and conflict of interest.

He was one of the last defendants to be charged in an investigation launched in 2007 by Republican Tom Corbett, then the state attorney general and now governor.

Of the 25 people arrested so far, 11 former legislators and aides in the House Democratic caucus have been convicted or pleaded guilty, including former House whip Michael Veon of Beaver County, who is serving a state prison term of at least six years.

Nine people connected to the House Republicans, including former House Speaker John Perzel of Philadelphia, have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Most of them are awaiting sentencing.

Two Democratic defendants were acquitted and charges against one GOP defendant were dropped. The only defendants whose cases have not been resolved are DeWeese and Democratic former Rep. Stephen Stetler of York County, whose trial is slated for later this year.