Northeast Times

Perzel to plead guilty in corruption case

Former Pennsylvania House Speak­er John Perzel has in­sist­ently pro­claimed his in­no­cence since Novem­ber 2009, when a grand jury in­dicted him and nine oth­ers on cam­paign-re­lated cor­rup­tion charges.

But a Dauph­in County Com­mon Pleas Court judge on Monday in­dic­ated pub­licly for the first time that Perzel has had an ap­par­ent change of heart.

Judge Richard A. Lewis ordered that Perzel and the ex-law­maker’s neph­ew, Eric S. Ruth, who is the former deputy dir­ect­or of in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy for the House Re­pub­lic­an caucus, ap­pear in court on Wed­nes­day to enter guilty pleas. Lewis’ one-sen­tence prin­ted state­ment did not spe­cify the spe­cif­ic charges to which Perzel had agreed to plead.

The sched­uled hear­ing was to take place after this week’s edi­tions of the Times went to press.

Reached Tues­day af­ter­noon, Ruth’s at­tor­ney, Evan Kelly, said that his cli­ent planned to plead guilty to one count each of con­spir­acy and con­flict of in­terest. Both are felon­ies.

Ruth had been charged with 48 crim­in­al counts, which also in­cluded theft. There is no agree­ment between Ruth and the Pennsylvania At­tor­ney Gen­er­al’s Of­fice with re­gard to terms of sen­ten­cing, Kelly said.

“The only agree­ment is that Eric will co­oper­ate with the at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s of­fice at tri­al if they call him (to testi­fy),” Kelly said.

The at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s of­fice, which is pro­sec­ut­ing the case, de­clined to com­ment on Tues­day af­ter­noon. Perzel’s at­tor­ney did not re­turn a tele­phone mes­sage re­quest­ing com­ment.

Kelly said that he had been in con­tact with Perzel’s at­tor­ney, but that Ruth’s plea was ne­go­ti­ated with the at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s of­fice in­de­pend­ently over a peri­od of a year to 18 months.

“(Ruth) made the de­term­in­a­tion that cer­tain things happened in the cap­it­al that shouldn’t have happened,” Kelly said.

Perzel and Ruth were to be­come the fourth and fifth co-de­fend­ants to plead guilty in the case, fol­low­ing the Aug. 17 pleas of former Perzel of­fice aide Samuel “Buzz” Stokes, who is Perzel’s broth­er-in-law; former Perzel chief of staff Paul Towhey; and former Perzel cam­paign aide Don Mc­Clin­tock.

The re­main­ing five de­fend­ants are sched­uled to go to tri­al on Sept. 19. The tri­al is ex­pec­ted to last sev­er­al months.

The case has be­come known as “Bo­nus­gate” in ref­er­ence to the cash bo­nuses that GOP staff mem­bers al­legedly were paid to per­form cam­paign work for law­makers at the ex­pense of tax­pay­ers.

Perzel, 61, is ac­cused of 82 counts, in­clud­ing theft, con­spir­acy and con­flict of in­terest, for us­ing the GOP caucus to dir­ect $10 mil­lion in pub­lic money in­to private cam­paign activ­it­ies. Much of the fund­ing sup­por­ted the de­vel­op­ment of cam­paign-re­lated com­puter soft­ware, the grand jury has al­leged.

Perzel pre­vi­ously claimed that state em­ploy­ees per­formed cam­paign work on their per­son­al time and were paid for that work by his cam­paign, Friends of John Perzel, not with state funds.

Perzel lives on Brous Av­en­ue in Lex­ing­ton Park and is Re­pub­lic­an lead­er of the 64th Ward. His fu­ture as a ward lead­er was un­known on Tues­day.

He was first elec­ted to the state House in 1978 and served as ma­jor­ity lead­er from 1995 to 2003, when he be­came speak­er. He con­tin­ued as speak­er un­til 2006, when Demo­crats took con­trol of the House and Perzel’s fel­low North­east Re­pub­lic­an, Den­nis O’Bri­en, was chosen as the new speak­er.

O’Bri­en served in that role for one two-year term and is now run­ning for a Re­pub­lic­an at-large seat on City Coun­cil.

Mem­bers of North­east Phil­adelphia’s polit­ic­al com­munity ex­pressed sur­prise and lament after hear­ing the news of Perzel’s plea.

“Ob­vi­ously, it was a huge is­sue in our cam­paign. I would say with (the) news there’s an ele­ment of sad­ness,” said Rep. Kev­in Boyle, a Demo­crat who un­seated the 16-term in­cum­bent last year dur­ing a fiercely con­tested elec­tion in the 172nd dis­trict.

“It’s a dark day in the his­tory of North­east Philly. He was such an in­flu­en­tial fig­ure for a very long time. He was a state rep­res­ent­at­ive for thirty-two years and it’s sad his ca­reer is go­ing to end this way.”

State Sen. Mike Stack, a Demo­crat rep­res­ent­ing the 5th dis­trict, de­scribed Perzel as a power­ful speak­er who rose up the ranks from humble be­gin­nings. Stack, a law­yer, thinks Perzel’s de­cision to avoid tri­al means he be­lieves the plea is a fair res­ol­u­tion to the charges. He ad­ded that a guilty plea will taint Perzel’s leg­acy.

“I think the whole thing is ter­ribly un­for­tu­nate,” Stack said. “I wish him and his fam­ily well.”

Boyle viewed Perzel’s ex­pec­ted plea as an­oth­er in­dic­a­tion that change is ne­ces­sary in the way polit­ics have been con­duc­ted in Phil­adelphia and across the state.

“The ends do not jus­ti­fy the means,” Boyle said. “All too of­ten in Phil­adelphia, our polit­ic­al cul­ture has been tol­er­ant of a cer­tain level of cor­rup­tion, and that has to end.” ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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