The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 21, 2012

Perzel gets at least 2 1/2 years in corruption case

HARRISBURG — Former Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel was ordered today to spend at least 2 1/2 years in prison and pay $1 million in restitution for his role in a scheme to use public resources for campaign purposes.

The once-powerful lawmaker sat stone-faced as Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis handed down his sentence but offered a short apology before the judge issued his decision.

“I’ve embarrassed myself, my family and the people of Pennsylvania,” Perzel said.

Perzel was among seven Republican defendants who pleaded guilty in the case. Prosecutors say he masterminded a scheme to spend millions of dollars on computer technology and expertise to give GOP candidates an advantage in election campaigns.

Two other Republican defendants stood trial and were convicted of 40 criminal counts each last fall. Former Rep. Brett Feese of Lycoming County is serving at least four years in state prison and his former aide, Jill Seaman, was sentenced to at least nine months in county jail.

Perzel had no comment as he left the courtroom. Defense attorney Brian McMonagle said he felt Lewis fully considered his client’s good works and the impact of his crimes in handing down the sentence.

Perzel was also fined $30,000.

Former Perzel chief of staff Brian Preski got 2 to 4 years in prison and $37,500 in fines, plus $1 million in restitution.

Eric Ruth, a former employee of the House technology office, got probation and $50,000 in restitution. He will take care of Perzel’s wife, who has multiple sclerosis.

Perzel, a prodigious campaign fundraiser who led the GOP to electoral gains in the Legislature, served in the House for more than three decades until he was ousted in the 2010 election.

He presided as House speaker from 2003 to 2007, encompassing most of the period that state prosecutors put under a microscope in their wide-ranging investigation.

Testimony at the Feese-Seaman trial indicated that Perzel once harbored hopes of being elected governor. A former top aide said a fledgling plan for a Perzel campaign in 2010 was spiked amid voter backlash over the hefty pay raises that lawmakers awarded themselves in July 2005 and later repealed.

As part of the plea deal he struck with prosecutors, Perzel testified at the six-week trial of Feese, a onetime GOP rising star who oversaw political fundraising as chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee, and Feese’s former aide Seaman.

On the witness stand, Perzel told the jury that Feese “would have to have known” about the illegal activity because it was common knowledge among top caucus officials, but said Seaman may not have been aware.

Perzel, who was originally charged with 82 counts, was allowed to plead guilty to two counts of conflict of interest, two counts of theft and four counts of conspiracy. Prosecutors had said the standard sentencing range would be a prison term of 18 months to slightly more than four years.

Preski, 46, a Philadelphia lawyer, was originally a co-defendant of Feese and Seaman, but he changed his mind and pleaded guilty on the third day of prosecution testimony.

Perzel’s longtime chief of staff, Brian Preski and two others are also scheduled to be sentenced on the case today.

Preski, who originally faced 54 counts, pleaded to two theft charges, five conspiracy counts and three counts of conflict of interest.

Al Bowman, a one-time Feese aide who worked with one of several contractors hired by the House GOP caucus to develop special software for candidates, was also sentenced Wednesday. He got probation and was fined $2,500.

Three other Republicans who pleaded guilty in the case were sentenced Tuesday to probation and fines on Tuesday.

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