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 firstname.lastname@example.org