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Perzel faces prison after guilty plea

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.

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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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