Perzel's going away

— Con­victed felon John Perzel, the one-time pop­u­lar polit­ic­al power­house from the Great North­east, is head­ing to pris­on.


Joe Ash­dale, a vet­er­an loc­al labor uni­on of­fi­cial, had a chance last week to speak as a char­ac­ter wit­ness at the sen­ten­cing hear­ing of his long­time friend John Perzel.

Ash­dale and Perzel, May­fair nat­ives, have known each oth­er for about 40 years.

Perzel was the maitre d’ at Pa­vio’s Res­taur­ant in Somer­ton, and Ash­dale was one of his em­ploy­ees. Perzel would go on to serve 32 years in the Pennsylvania House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, in­clud­ing stints as ma­jor­ity lead­er and speak­er.

That all star­ted to come crum­bling down in Novem­ber 2009, when a state grand jury re­com­men­ded that he be charged with us­ing pub­lic funds for elec­tion pur­poses. The charges were ser­i­ous enough that he lost a re-elec­tion bid in Novem­ber 2010.

Perzel pleaded guilty last Au­gust to eight of the 82 counts against him.

On March 21, he was in front of Dauph­in County Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Richard A. Lewis to hear his sen­tence.

In his re­marks to the court and in a let­ter, Ash­dale out­lined the as­sist­ance Perzel gave the com­munity, the city and the state.

The uni­on lead­er asked for mercy, de­scrib­ing Perzel as a good hus­band and fath­er who is con­tinu­ing to help the com­munity in his con­sult­ing role with a de­veloper look­ing to build on the former Lid­don­field Homes hous­ing pro­ject.

“I just said what a good man he was. He al­ways had an open door. He was a lead­er. He got a lot of things done,” Ash­dale said.

Be­fore sen­ten­cing, Perzel told the court he had em­bar­rassed him­self, his fam­ily and friends and the people of Pennsylvania. He apo­lo­gized for the dis­grace brought by his ac­tions, es­pe­cially after hav­ing ris­en to a lead­er­ship role.

Lewis sen­tenced the 62-year-old former law­maker from Lex­ing­ton Park to two and a half to five years in pris­on, fined him $30,000 and ordered him to pay $1 mil­lion in resti­tu­tion.

Perzel must re­port to pris­on on April 11. It has not been de­term­ined where he will serve the sen­tence.

City Con­trol­ler Alan Butkovitz served 15 years in the House with Perzel. Though a Demo­crat, Butkovitz sided with Perzel and Re­pub­lic­ans on cer­tain is­sues.

“Perzel was a tre­mend­ous as­set to the com­munity,” he said. “It’s really tra­gic that he was en­meshed in this. I hope for the best for him and his fam­ily, and that he comes through this.”

City Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill (R-10th dist.) said Perzel helped fund ini­ti­at­ives in the 10th Coun­cil­man­ic Dis­trict. He de­scribed Perzel as “gen­er­ous, caring and hard work­ing.”

O’Neill said Perzel was al­ways a pres­ence in Har­ris­burg and his dis­trict, adding that his fall is both sad and a tragedy.

“Take this away, and he was the com­plete pub­lic ser­vant,” he said.

Joe De­Fe­lice served as a sum­mer in­tern, le­gis­lat­ive aide and 64th Ward com­mit­tee­man un­der Perzel. Today, he is pres­id­ent of the May­fair Civic As­so­ci­ation and the newly named chair­man of the May­fair Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion.

The two grew apart a little as De­Fe­lice joined a group of re­form Re­pub­lic­ans and Perzel stayed with the old guard.

“John has done a lot for our neigh­bor­hood. We wish him well,” De­Fe­lice said.

A gradu­ate of St. Mat­thew Ele­ment­ary School and Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln High School, Perzel ous­ted Demo­crat­ic Rep. Fran­cis Gleeson in the 172nd Le­gis­lat­ive Dis­trict in 1978. He gen­er­ally won re-elec­tion with ease, though Tina Tartagli­one gave him a tough race in 1992.

In 1994, Re­pub­lic­ans ended elec­tion night with a 102-101 dis­ad­vant­age. Perzel con­vinced a Demo­crat­ic rep­res­ent­at­ive to switch parties, giv­ing the GOP con­trol.

Rep. Matt Ry­an, of Delaware County, be­came speak­er, and Perzel served as ma­jor­ity lead­er, rais­ing tons of money to keep Re­pub­lic­ans in power for the next 12 years.

In 2000, Perzel needed a strong show­ing in ab­sent­ee bal­lots to de­feat Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger Mark Chilutti by 92 votes.

Ac­cord­ing to the grand jury, that close call led Perzel to start to rely heav­ily on soph­ist­ic­ated tech­no­logy to win elec­tions for him and oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans.

The grand jury’s re­port said Perzel used pub­lic funds and House staffers for cam­paigns.

When Ry­an died in 2003, Perzel re­placed him as speak­er.

Loc­al schools, hos­pit­als, ath­let­ic as­so­ci­ations and oth­er be­nefited by hav­ing him in com­mand.

The May­fair Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion built a gi­ant com­munity cen­ter in 2006 and named it in hon­or of Perzel. After the guilty plea, his named was re­moved from the out­side of the build­ing.

Re­pub­lic­ans en­joyed a 110-93 ad­vant­age in 2005, but Perzel made a key mis­cal­cu­la­tion by sup­port­ing a le­gis­lat­ive pay raise that was ap­proved in the middle of the night.

Though Demo­crats also sup­por­ted the in­crease and then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed it in­to law, voters in 2006 pun­ished Re­pub­lic­ans. Demo­crats took a 102-101 ad­vant­age.

Perzel con­vinced a few Demo­crats to vote to keep him as speak­er, but a hand­ful of anti-Perzel Re­pub­lic­ans joined Demo­crats to elect Denny O’Bri­en as speak­er.

Demo­crats main­tained con­trol in 2008, and Perzel lost a bid for minor­ity lead­er. He served his fi­nal term push­ing for ad­di­tion­al po­lice of­ficers and elim­in­a­tion of prop­erty taxes for seni­or cit­izens, but did not have the power to get those is­sues to pass.

In all, 10 people were in­dicted in what some dubbed “Com­puter­gate.”

Former Rep. Brett Feese and an aide, Jill Sea­man, were con­victed and sen­tenced to pris­on terms.

Bri­an Preski, a law­yer from Bustleton and Perzel’s former chief of staff, pleaded guilty and was sen­tenced to two to four years in pris­on.

Eric Ruth, Al Bow­man, Paul Towhey, Buzz Stokes and Don Mc­Clin­tock all re­ceived pro­ba­tion and fines fol­low­ing guilty pleas.

Charges were dropped against John Zi­m­mer­man. ••


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