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DeWeese faces sentencing the same day he faces voters

HARRISBURG - Come Tuesday, State Rep. Bill DeWeese will be twice judged: once by criminal court, and once by constituents back home.

In an improbable twist of fate, the onetime Democratic powerhouse is to be sentenced that day in a Harrisburg courtroom for stealing from taxpayers - and at the same time, will be running in his party's primary to represent his rural southwestern Pennsylvania district for two more years.

He is running unopposed.

Even in the corruption-caked annals of Pennsylvania politics, this rare confluence of events could produce an even rarer result: a jailed DeWeese on the fall ballot in a race his supporters think he could win.

Is his candidacy a slap at the jury in his case, an offshoot of the wide-ranging Bonusgate investigation? An egomaniacal attempt to cling to power? DeWeese, 62, a former House speaker and Democratic leader, said there was no hidden strategy.

"It is premature for me to make any specific plan," said the usually loquacious ex-Marine from Greene County. "I will be unyieldingly respectful of the court, and the jury. And as the summer rolls forward, we will all take a long look at the legal and political alternatives."

This much is clear: On Tuesday, DeWeese could be sentenced to up to 16 months on each of five counts of theft and other charges on which he was convicted, in a scheme to have legislative aides do campaign work on state time. Whatever the sentence, he has said he will appeal his conviction.

Also certain: Before his scheduled 1:30 p.m. sentencing, DeWeese will resign his House seat, ending a 36-year stretch of service in Harrisburg. He will then no longer be on the ballot as an incumbent, but as a resident of Greene County who may soon be in jail.

That he faces no Democratic challenger paves the way for his name to be on the Nov. 6 ballot. His lawyer, Bill Costopoulos, said in an interview Friday that if DeWeese wins in November - and also wins his appeal - he could reclaim his seat.

But if the appeal fails and he remains a convicted felon, the law bars him from serving in the House, even if elected.

"What a mess," said Tim Potts, president of the self-styled Harrisburg reform group Democracy Rising. "My question is, where is the Democratic Party on this? What are they thinking?"

Good question. Democrats have been mostly silent on DeWeese. The state party referred questions to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia, said its focus for now was on six special elections to be held Tuesday.

Still, Boyle said he did not expect DeWeese to be on the fall ballot. He said DeWeese could withdraw, or someone could challenge his candidacy in court.

"Bill believes he is innocent, and he is fully within his rights to challenge his conviction," Boyle said. "But I hope that he keeps his legal path separate from his political one."

DeWeese has always maintained his innocence, even after a Dauphin County jury convicted him in February. For months before that, he walked around telling anyone who would listen that he was a pawn in Republican Gov. Corbett's rise to the governorship.

Corbett was attorney general when that office charged DeWeese in 2009. The office, which also successfully prosecuted a number of Republicans in Bonusgate-related probes, has repeatedly said politics played no part in the case.

Asked this week whether he still believed he was innocent, DeWeese would not answer. As for critics who say he should get off the ballot, he said only: "I respect those people and their opinions."

He did say supporters had volunteered to circulate petitions and get his name on the ballot. He received 1,307 signatures, he said - a thousand more than he needed.

Gretchen Graham of Greene County, who is helping his campaign, said it had dozens of volunteers, plus endorsements from organizations such as the United Mine Workers and the Teamsters.

There is even a party planned for Tuesday night at Rohanna's Restaurant & Lounge in Waynesburg, where DeWeese has held many victory parties in the last three-plus decades.

Shirl Barnhart, a township supervisor who is helping DeWeese's campaign, said he believed the Democrat would win Tuesday and again in November. Say what you will about him, Barnhart said - DeWeese has delivered jobs, money, and investment to constituents.

Beyond that, he said, there is a feeling in the far-flung district that DeWeese was singled out.

"The feeling is, they are not only attacking him," said Barnhart. "They are attacking us."