HARRISBURG - Rep. John M. Perzel, the former speaker of the state House, was charged today with 82 criminal counts in a sweeping scandal involving sophisticated, multi-million dollar software programs paid for by taxpayers but allegedly used for political campaigning.
The Philadelphia Republican is the most prominent political figure thus far to be charged in Attorney General Tom Corbett's long-running investigation unofficially known as Bonusgate.
Nine others with ties to the House Republican Caucus were also charged, including five former top Perzel aides and former Rep. Brett Feese of Lycoming County, who once headed the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
"Perzel was architect behind a sophisticated criminal strategy that spent nearly $10 million of taxpayer money purely for campaign work," said Corbett, a Republican whose critics had, before today, accused him of protecting members of his own party.
At a 1 p.m. news conference, Corbett said the Bonusgate investigation, which started in early 2007, is continuing but declined to say whether the focus was on legislative Democrats or Republicans or both.
The charges, laid out in a 188-page presentment, come 17 months after Corbett brought charges against a dozen House Democratic insiders - including former House Minority Whip Mike Veon - accusing them of misusing public funds for political purposes.
Perzel, who represented Northeast Philadelphia in the state House for 30 of his 59 years, was charged theft criminal conspiracy and conflict of interest primarily for his role in building and using a more than $9 million taxpayer-funded computer software program, according to a grand jury's findings released today.
Perzel, in a statement, said he was innocent and accused Corbett - a Republican, who is running for governor in 2010 - of "political opportunism."
"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," said Perzel.
"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," said Perzel. "It smacks of political opportunism at the expense of my reputation, and I am going to fight very aggressively to prove my innocence.
When asked to respond to Perzel's statement, Corbett said he had no comment. "I just laid out what we've been doing for two years," he said.
Also charged were:
Brian Preski, Perzel's former chief of staff
Paul Towhey, Perzel's current chief of staff.
Samuel "Buzz" Stokes, former campaign manager and Perzel's brother in law.
John Zimmerman, a Perzel legislative aide.
Don McClintock, a Perzel campaign aide.
Jill Seaman and Elmer "Al" Bowman, former aides to Rep. Feese.
Eric Ruth, former House Republican information technology deputy director and nephew of Perzel's wife.
The defendants have been directed to surrender at 9 a.m. tomorrow at the office of Dauphin County Magisterial District Judge William Wenner in Harrisburg.
Feese, who had represented the Williamsport area in the state House for a dozen years, resigned last week as the top lawyer for House Republicans - a post he had held since late 2006 after leaving the legislature.
William Winning, Preski's attorney, said today that he had not yet reviewed the charges. But he called Preski "a dedicated public servent who served the caucus honeestly and honerably."
"Brian has done nothing wrong or illegal," Winning added. "I am confident that in the end he will be fully exhonorated."
Towhey's lawyer, George Parry of Philadelphia, declined comment today.