Perzel faces prison after guilty plea

The former polit­ic­al power­house from the North­east could get 18 months to 24 years in pris­on for cor­rup­tion. “I let you down,” he said in a state­ment to voters.

Former Pennsylvania House Speak­er John Perzel will soon be in a Dauph­in County courtroom — sit­ting on the wit­ness stand, not  at the de­fense table.

Perzel last week pleaded guilty to eight of 82 counts against him in front of Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Richard A. Lewis.

Sen­ten­cing will likely be delayed un­til after the tri­als of five co-de­fend­ants.

Perzel, 61, is ex­pec­ted to be a star wit­ness at the tri­als of Bustleton res­id­ent Bri­an Preski (his former chief of staff), John Zi­m­mer­man (his former le­gis­lat­ive aide), former state Rep. Brett Feese and former Feese aides Elmer “Al” Bow­man and Jill Sea­man.

An­oth­er four co-de­fend­ants have already pleaded guilty. They are Samuel “Buzz” Stokes, Perzel’s broth­er-in-law and former House em­ploy­ee; Paul Towhey, Perzel’s former chief of staff; Don Mc­Clin­tock, a former Perzel cam­paign aide; and Eric Ruth, a neph­ew of Perzel’s wife Sheryl and former deputy dir­ect­or of House Re­pub­lic­an In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy.

While the oth­ers were in court two weeks ago, Ruth joined Perzel on Aug. 31, plead­ing to one count each of con­spir­acy and con­flict of in­terest.

Then-Pennsylvania At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Tom Corbett an­nounced charges against Perzel and nine oth­ers in Novem­ber 2009, fol­low­ing a grand jury in­vest­ig­a­tion. They were charged with us­ing pub­lic funds for elec­tion pur­poses.

At the time, Perzel ac­cused Corbett of “polit­ic­al op­por­tunism,” not­ing that he was pre­par­ing to run for gov­ernor. Corbett, a Re­pub­lic­an, had been faul­ted for pre­vi­ously char­ging only Demo­crats.

Those crit­ics were si­lenced after he charged Perzel, a prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­an who was House ma­jor­ity lead­er for eight years and speak­er for four.

Perzel denied the charges and sought re-elec­tion last year to the 172nd Le­gis­lat­ive Dis­trict seat he first won in 1978.

In fact, his pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing took place about the same time that he faced the first primary chal­lenge of his ca­reer. When little-known Joe Gaynor took 27.3 per­cent of the vote in the primary, that was a sign that Perzel’s sup­port was di­min­ish­ing.

In the gen­er­al elec­tion, Perzel was count­ing on his usu­al strong show­ings in the 55th and 64th wards, and he was hop­ing to be­ne­fit from the Re­pub­lic­an tide of 2010.

However, Demo­crat Kev­in Boyle used pic­tures of a hand­cuffed Perzel in mail­ings and cable tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and un­seated the 16-term in­cum­bent with 53.7 per­cent of the vote.

Perzel’s tri­al was sched­uled for this month, but he de­cided to plead guilty to charges of theft, con­flict of in­terest and con­spir­acy.

Af­ter­ward, he did not speak to re­port­ers, but is­sued the fol­low­ing state­ment via e-mail:

“I said from the start of this case that I would fight the charges against me, and I have done so for nearly every day of the last two years. It is a fight that has taken an enorm­ous toll on my fam­ily and the friends who have been so stead­fast in their sup­port.

“I have de­cided today that my fight has come to an end. 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. 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.”

Boyle, who moved in­to Perzel’s dis­trict of­fice at 7518 Frank­ford Ave. after be­ing sworn in, re­leased the fol­low­ing state­ment:

“Today is a sad day for North­east Phil­adelphia. John Perzel, a lead­er who rep­res­en­ted our com­munity for over three dec­ades, entered a guilty plea to eight counts of pub­lic cor­rup­tion. Over the years, Perzel had be­come a re­spec­ted Re­pub­lic­an lead­er with a power­ful reach both at home in Phil­adelphia and throughout Pennsylvania. In the pro­cess, Perzel be­came an in­spir­a­tion to many. Un­for­tu­nately, the plight of Perzel mir­rors the ex­per­i­ence of many pre­vi­ously power­ful Pennsylvania elec­ted of­fi­cials. This should serve as a stern re­mind­er to elec­ted of­fi­cials that laws should not be broken in pur­suit of power.”

Perzel, who is be­ing rep­res­en­ted by at­tor­ney Bri­an J. Mc­Monagle, will lose his pen­sion. He could be sen­tenced to up to 24 years in pris­on and fined $50,000, but the stand­ard sen­ten­cing range will likely be 18 to 50 months. ••

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