As lawmakers gird for budget showdown, release of 2 from prison concludes corruption probe



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — As Pennsylvania lawmakers brace for the annual clash over how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars, the final chapter in a starker government drama is quietly playing out in the state prison system.

Two former legislative leaders who received the stiffest sentences among the 22 people who were convicted or pleaded guilty in a corruption investigation in the House of Representatives have been or are being released on parole this month.

Former Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver County, a longtime Democratic whip convicted of using tax money to pay bonuses to state workers for political activity, illegal campaign fundraising and the misuse of state funds at a nonprofit he once ran, was freed Thursday from Laurel Highlands State Prison after five years behind bars.

At Waymart State Prison in the state's northeastern corner, Republican former Rep. Brett Feese of Lycoming County is scheduled to be paroled June 28, his lawyer said. A former district attorney whose House leadership posts included a stint as GOP whip, Feese will have served three years and three months for his role in hiring out-of-state consultants with public funds and diverting legislative employees to develop voter databases and customized software to help elect more Republicans.

The release of the two men concludes the investigation that the attorney general's office launched in 2007. It stained the Legislature's image and meant prison terms for former House speakers John Perzel, a Republican, and Bill DeWeese, a Democrat, whose official portraits are displayed in the Capitol corridor.

But the scandal produced no major reforms. And that raises an important question: What difference has all the investigating and prosecuting made in the everyday business of the Legislature?

Rep. Mike Hanna, the current House Democratic whip, said the corruption scandal made legislators painfully aware of their responsibilities under the state Ethics Act. All lawmakers must annually receive formal ethics training that is tailored for legislators, he said.

"We've had some pretty bright lines painted" to separate the political arena from the public arena, the Clinton County Democrat said.

For example, he said, constituents sometimes drop by their legislator's district office to make a campaign contribution or drop off a campaign sign. Staffers are now trained to tell the constituents they cannot accept such items and provide the legislator's home phone number if they want further explanation.

"The mindset of the legislators is much more cognizant of the ethics act and its provisions," Hanna said. "In my estimation, the culture has changed."

Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said corruption scandals in Harrisburg are cyclical, the product of arrogant public officials and weak laws.

"We wish these cycles would never happen but they do," he said.

Lawmakers could begin changing the political culture through such steps as banning gifts to public officials and establishing limits on campaign contributions, including protections against pay-to-play practices in government contracting, Kauffman said.

When he took office in January, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf raised eyebrows by issuing an executive order banning the acceptance of gifts by executive-branch employees. The Legislature's "reform caucus" also is considering proposals to tighten the gift laws.

Currently, lawmakers may accept anything — airline tickets, tickets to sporting events, meals or hotel stays — from anyone interested in influencing them.

"Once we close that loophole, I think the standards become tougher and there's less (of a) gray area," Kauffman said. "Once that's understood ... things do improve."


Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at pjackson@ap.org.

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