UPDATED PoliticsPA Reports: Corbett charges Perzel, 9 others in second wave of Bonusgate indictments
By Alex Roarty
PoliticsPA Staff Writer
HARRISBURG — Attorney General Tom Corbett on Thursday filed a sweeping set of charges against Republican and former Speaker of the House John Perzel, Republican and former House Appropriations Chairman Brett Feese, and eight of their former or current staffers, alleging they illegally used millions of taxpayer dollars for campaigns and then obstructed the attorney general’s investigation into the practice.
Also charged were former Perzel Chief of Staff Brian Preski, current Chief of Staff Paul Towhey, Perzel’s brother-in-law Samuel Stokes, Perzel legislative aide John Zimmerman, Perzel campaign aide Don McClintock, Feese aides Jill Seaman and Elmer Bowman, and former House Republican Information Technology Deputy Director Eric Ruth. Corbett identified Preski, Perzel and Feese as the three principal culprits.
In all, the attorney general made 456 criminal charges against the 10 Republicans, which could carry a maximum sentence of 2,948 years. The charges are two-tiered – one set focuses on the alleged illegal use of taxpayer money and resources, the other on what the attorney general said was deliberate obstruction of his office’s investigation.
The indictments were the long-awaited second-wave of Corbett’s high-profile “Bonusgate” investigation, which last July charged 12 people part of or connected to the House Democratic Caucus with illegally appropriating taxpayer money and resources to build a massive campaign operation. This set of charges was levied only on Republicans, and did not allege any bonuses were paid to legislative staffers in exchange for campaign work.
Instead, the attorney general said former Speaker Perzel, who he called the plan’s “architect,” used about $10 million in taxpayer money to build a massive, technology-driven system that helped House Republicans get and stay elected. The 188-page grand jury presentment given to reporters described an array of computer systems implemented in the wake of Perzel’s narrow re-election in 2000 that, among other things, extensively tracked voter information and helped Perzel staffers make sure his supporters voted on election days.
The technologies were gradually expanded from Perzel’s office to the entire caucus, the attorney general said.
“The grand jury found that Perzel vowed to never experience another close electoral challenge and instilled that mindset in his staff and employees of the Republican Caucus,” Corbett said. “Perzel put everyone on notice that everything possible would be done to prevent another close election.”
The attorney general also accused Perzel, who remains a House representative, of hiring no-show legislative employees to do campaign work and using illegal, untraceable robocalls to smear House Republicans who opposed him. Corbett called the robocalls “dirty tricks.”
“The grand jury found that Perzel was aggressive in the acquisition and retention of power,” Corbett said. “He demanded obedience and loyalty and punished those, whether they were elected officials or employees, who challenged his power.”
State Representatives Curt Schroder and Will Gabig were two House Republicans targeted by the calls.
The technology systems, created by New Orleans-based GCR & Associates and Washington-based Aristotle Inc., also helped representatives with constituent services. The partial legal use of the systems helped provide cover for their implementation, Corbett said. About half the money paid to each technology company was for legal uses, he said.
Corbett also said his office “encountered numerous impediments and obstacles” while investigating the alleged misuse, an obstruction of justice the attorney general said bothered him the most about the charges.
Critics have assailed the investigation, which is nearly three years old, for how long it has taken and the roughly 16-month gap between the first set of charges and the ones unveiled Thursday.
“The criminal obstruction by some in the House Republican Caucus has played a significant part in the length of this investigation,” Corbett said. “This office, as well as the grand jury, experienced a series of deliberate acts by the Republican caucus to obstruct and hinder this investigation.”
The presentment describes Feese, who in 2007 was hired to be the caucus’ chief counsel, and his assistant, Seaman, giving agents from the attorney general’s office handwritten notes that allegedly showed him investigating the illegal use of taxpayer money. The notes said he knew nothing about the activity while he was a lawmaker.
The grand jury found those notes were “fabricated for the intentional purpose of obstructing and hindering the investigation,” the presentment said.
“The grand jury also found that the notes are demonstratively false and intentionally sought to mislead investigators into believing that Feese had been unaware and uninvolved in the use of public resources for campaign purposes,” Corbett said.
Perzel denied any wrongdoing in a statement.
“First and foremost, I am innocent of the charges against me,” he said. “I have faithfully served the people of my district, my city and my state for more than 30 years, and I have never used public funds for my personal or political gain.”
The former speaker of the House then accused Corbett of playing politics with his investigation, a charge the attorney general has faced frequently in recent months. He is the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year.
“Second, this investigation has lasted for nearly three years, and it’s only now, on the eve of his gubernatorial campaign and in response to claims that he was unfairly pursuing only Democrats, that Attorney General Corbett has decided to bring charges against 10 Republicans, including me,” Perzel said. “It smacks of political opportunism at the expense of my reputation, and I am going to fight very aggressively to prove my innocence.”
When read Perzel’s statement during his press conference, Corbett said the presentment speaks for itself and details why the investigation has taken two years.
Corbett would not characterize where his investigation will go next, only saying his office will continue to examine each of the four caucuses. He also said the investigation into alleged House Republican obstruction has not finished.
This story was updated at 4:20 p.m., Thursday.