HARRISBURG - A former western Pennsylvania legislator was acquitted of all charges yesterday in the first jury trial stemming from the corruption scandal known as Bonusgate.
The jurors deliberated for only about 21/2 hours before finding former State Rep. Sean Ramaley not guilty of six counts of theft, conflict of interest, and conspiracy.
Ramaley, 34, who was accused of taking a no-work legislative job in 2004 in a scheme that had the public pay him to run for office, showed no emotion as the forewoman read the not-guilty verdicts. As the jurors filed out, Ramaley hugged his wife and his lawyers.
When asked how he felt outside the courtroom, the two-term Democrat from Beaver County said, in a booming voice, "Vindicated!"
"This was a big, important day," said Ramaley, who did not testify in his own defense during the five-day trial in Dauphin County Court. "Faith, family and friends carried me though this."
Political observers called the verdict a setback for Attorney General Tom Corbett, who has spent three years probing corruption at the Capitol and who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year.
Prosecutors alleged that Ramaley, 34, took a "ghost" job as a part-time legislative aide in the Beaver Falls district office of then-Democratic Whip Rep. Mike Veon.
The case was based largely on testimony from former legislative aides to Veon, who said they saw Ramaley perform no official tasks while on the public payroll between July and November 2004.
Instead, they testified, he devoted his time in Veon's office to raising campaign dollars and other election efforts.
Ramaley's defense witnesses said he earned his $2,500-a-month state salary by working on government programs as a Veon staffer and by helping constituents with legal matters. "Sean Ramaley had a job and he went to that job and he did his job," defense lawyer Philip Ignelzi told the jury in his closing argument yesterday.
The prosecutor in the case, Senior Deputy Attorney General Anthony Krastek, countered in his final words to the jury, "Sean Ramaley went to work. He didn't go to work for you. You paid him."
Ramaley's wife, Stephie-Anna, allowed a smile to sneak across a face wet with tears as the last not-guilty verdict was read aloud.
One juror, Brent Sitlinger, said afterward, "There really wasn't that one piece of evidence to hang a verdict on." Sitlinger, 33, a window company employee, said jurors' initial straw vote was at least 9-3 for acquittal.
Ramaley and Veon were among a dozen people with ties to the House Democratic caucus charged in July 2008 in the first round of Bonusgate counts.
At least five of the other Bonusgate defendants have agreed to plead guilty in deals with prosecutors.
After he was charged, Ramaley dropped his bid for a state Senate seat and left office as a representative in November of last year.
A judge agreed to Ramaley's request to have his case tried separately from the others, who were more closely linked to the allegations that gave the scandal its nickname: a system of handing out government bonuses to legislative staff as rewards for campaign work. A half-dozen defendants, including Veon, are scheduled to be tried in January.
Last month, 10 people with ties to the House Republican caucus were named in a second round of Bonusgate charges. Rep. John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) and nine others are accused of using $10 million in public funds to build computer databases that helped GOP campaigns.
Perzel has denied wrongdoing and has accused Corbett of political opportunism.
Krastek, the prosecutor, called Ramaley's trial a "little sliver" of the overall investigation and said he did not believe the acquittal boded poorly for the other cases. "Obviously there is much more involved in the other cases and many more facets," he said.
Chris Borick, a politics professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College, called the verdict a blow to Corbett, both as a prosecutor and a candidate, but not an insurmountable one.
"It's not a good way to start off the series of trials in such a high-profile scandal as this, especially for someone who wants to be our next governor," said Borick. "But if he gets the other convictions, this will be forgotten by the time we move into the campaign season."