HARRISBURG, Pa. – The onetime speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives pleaded guilty Wednesday to eight criminal charges stemming from a public corruption investigation, making him the highest-ranking state politician to be convicted in the four-and-a-half-year inquiry.
Ex-Rep. John M. Perzel entered the plea to two counts of conflict of interest, two counts of theft and four counts of conspiracy. He left the courthouse without commenting, but apologized in an e-mailed statement and said he bore responsibility for improprieties in spending public funds he controlled.
"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," Perzel said in the news release.
Prosecutors have described Perzel, 61, as being at the center of a scheme to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on computer technology for the benefit of GOP political campaigns.
Also Wednesday, his nephew and co-defendant Eric S. Ruth, 36, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and conflict of interest. Ruth once worked in the House Republican technology office.
"I think it's the right thing for Eric Ruth. He put a lot of thought into what he did, and he's very happy with it," his lawyer, Evan Kelly, said afterward.
Ruth and Perzel both agreed to cooperate with state prosecutors, and could be compelled to testify against five others who await trial in the case.
In return, prosecutors dropped dozens of counts against each of them. Perzel is likely to lose his hefty state pension as a result, but the fate of Ruth's retirement benefits was less clear.
Perzel's guilty pleas amounted to four sets of two charges, each consisting of theft or conflict of interest as well as an accompanying conspiracy count that will run concurrently at sentencing. He faces up to 24 years in prison, but lead prosecutor Frank Fina said the standard sentencing range would be 18 months to just over four years.
"I think we've once again demonstrated ... that it's a crime in Pennsylvania to use the people's money for campaign purposes, for personal purposes. The money's supposed to be used for the taxpayers' benefit," Fina said.
Ruth's charges carry up to five years apiece, but will not necessarily run concurrently.
Perzel was first elected to the state House in 1979 and served as majority leader and then as speaker from 2003-07, gaining a reputation as a dealmaker who could bridge differences between parties but a sometimes ruthless caucus leader who consolidated power and led his party to electoral gains.
He was defeated in a re-election bid for his Philadelphia House seat in November.
He and Ruth were among 10 people with links to the House GOP who were charged in November 2009 under a 188-page grand jury presentment. Three others pleaded guilty in recent weeks, and charges are pending against the remaining five, with two trials ahead.
When Perzel was charged, he released a statement that said he was innocent and accused fellow Republican Tom Corbett — then the attorney general and now the governor — of "political opportunism at the expense of my reputation."
In a court filing last year, Perzel's lawyers said all the counts against him were unfounded, and that "all of the activities ... had a legitimate and legal legislative purpose that provided tremendous benefit to the citizens of Pennsylvania."
Following a six-day preliminary hearing in May 2010, Perzel said he was left with a sense that "being a politician is now illegal."
The allegations hinged on the use of technology, including data mining and computer software, for the benefit of House Republican campaigns.
The criminal charges grew from an investigation into the alleged misuse of government resources and employees. The inquiry was triggered by the disclosure in January 2007 that millions in bonuses had been quietly handed out to legislative employees.
Fifteen people connected to the House Democratic caucus were charged, including former Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver, now serving a state prison sentence after being convicted by a jury with two other defendants. Two other defendants were acquitted, seven pleaded guilty and three, including current state Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, await trial.
No charges have been filed against any current state senators, or their employees, although Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny, is awaiting trial on similar charges filed by a county district attorney.