Pa. legislative corruption trial begins for 3 GOP defendants
Defense lawyers blame former House speaker
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Top Republicans in the state House of Representatives used millions of dollars in public funds, employees, and equipment to compile databases of information about state voters to boost GOP campaigns, prosecutors said yesterday as the corruption trial of three former officials opened.
The trial “is about powerful people taking the public’s money and using it to expand and enhance their campaigns,’’ Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina told the Dauphin County jury of six men and six women in his opening statement.
Defense lawyers said their clients are innocent. They said responsibility for any wrongdoing rests with John Perzel, former House speaker, and his top aides, including three former House staffers who were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for cooperating with investigators from the state attorney general’s office.
Fina identified Perzel as the moving force behind an alleged scheme that initially tapped tax-paid computer specialists in the House GOP caucus.
The scheme eventually widened to including the hiring - mostly at public expense - of out-of-state consultants to develop customized computer programs and provide data about voters’ political preferences and lifestyles, Fina said.
But despite Perzel’s guilty plea last month, Fina said responsibility is shared by others including the three defendants: Brett Feese, former representative and a one-time House GOP whip and former head of the House Republican Campaign Committee; Brian Preski, Perzel’s former chief of staff; and former Feese aide Jill Seaman.
Perzel, who lost his Philadelphia House seat in last year’s election, and five other officials who have pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the case are expected to testify, Fina said.
Preski’s lawyer, William Winning, told the jurors any responsibility for the wrongdoing belongs to Perzel and others, not his client.
“Brian is not a criminal. He’s not a thief. He didn’t steal any money from the taxpayers of Pennsylvania and he . . . is not criminally responsible for what happened,’’ said Winning, the first defense lawyer to address the jury.
County Judge Richard Lewis has said the trial is expected to last about eight weeks.
Fina said one consultant - New Orleans-based GCR & Associates Inc. - received $9 million in public funds over several years for work that was largely tailored to political campaigns, including a product called “Candidate Connect’’ that Fina called “an A-to-Z guide for Republican candidates.’’
Another consultant, a Washington-area company called the Weiss Micromarketing Group, sought to analyze voters by scrutinizing such habits as their magazine subscriptions and favorite supermarkets. Based on that information, they were assigned to lifestyle groups with names like “The Affluentials,’’ “Urban Cores,’’ and “Country Comfort,’’ Fina said.
In a separate corruption case in US District Court in Philadelphia, prosecutors said yesterday they will push for at least a 15-year sentence when Vincent Fumo, former Pennsylvania state senator, is resentenced.
Prosecutors successfully challenged the 4 1/2-year sentence in that case, leading Senior US District Judge Ronald Buckwalter to schedule a Nov. 9 reconsideration.
A jury in 2009 convicted Fumo of defrauding the state Senate, a museum, and a nonprofit of millions by using their staff and resources to fund his lavish lifestyle. He had been a wealthy Democratic power broker during his 30-year state Senate career.
An appeals court ruled last month that Buckwalter had ignored more than $1.5 million in losses and made other mistakes in calculating Fumo’s sentence. Prosecutors say the guideline range for Fumo’s fraud is 18 to 21 years.
Defense lawyer Dennis Cogan will urge Buckwalter to give the same 55-month sentence, saying Fumo has been left “twisting in the wind’’ amid the uncertainty.
Fumo, 68, remains in prison in Kentucky and did not attend yesterday’s hearing. He has gained weight and grown a beard and long hair while in prison, according to Cogan, who called his client depressed.