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DeWeese, Stetler indicted on theft charges

HARRISBURG - Rep. Bill DeWeese, a former speaker of the state House and a fixture in the Capitol for three decades, was accused of theft yesterday in the latest round of criminal charges to grow out of the Bonusgate scandal.

In this Oct. 8, 2008 file photo, Pa. Rep. Bill DeWeese is seen during a news conference in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
In this Oct. 8, 2008 file photo, Pa. Rep. Bill DeWeese is seen during a news conference in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)Read more

HARRISBURG - Rep. Bill DeWeese, a former speaker of the state House and a fixture in the Capitol for three decades, was accused of theft yesterday in the latest round of criminal charges to grow out of the Bonusgate scandal.

So was former Rep. Stephen Stetler (D., York), who resigned as the state's revenue secretary yesterday only hours before Attorney General Tom Corbett announced the charges against him.

The two men - as well as Sharon Rodavich, a longtime legislative aide in DeWeese's district office in southwestern Pennsylvania - are charged with six counts of conflict of interest, theft, and conspiracy.

DeWeese, 59, who has served in the House since 1976, is accused of using his state staff as a taxpayer-funded campaign team. He must step down as majority whip, the caucus' second-ranking post, and will be demoted to rank-and-file status.

His "legislative staff and campaign staff were virtually one in the same," said the grand jury presentment released yesterday.

The charges bring to 25 the number of current and former legislators and aides associated with the state House's Democratic and Republican caucuses to be criminally accused in the investigation, now in its third year.

At a news conference announcing the latest charges, Corbett said, "Why don't these people understand that there has to be a separation from the politics and the office?"

Much of the case against DeWeese (D., Greene) appears built around testimony from his former chief of staff, Mike Manzo. Manzo was fired by DeWeese before he became one of the dozen people accused in July 2008 in the first round of Bonusgate charges.

Manzo, who has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors, testified that Rodavich, 53, "did nothing but politics" while on DeWeese's state payroll, and other than that, she "didn't do any work."

He also told the grand jury that DeWeese in 2006 became obsessed with having legislative staff do more for his campaign.

Manzo testified that, during one period, DeWeese began stopping his staffers in the hallways of the Capitol and asking them, "Why aren't you in Greene County?"

"It was pretty well understood that if you worked for Bill, you had to get your butt out there and knock on doors," Manzo testified.

At another point, the grand jury found that DeWeese told some top lieutenants that if staffers didn't work harder on his campaign, they "should be fired."

Corbett alleged that DeWeese employed one Capitol aide from 2001 to 2007 mainly to raise campaign money. Kevin Sidella testified under a grant of immunity that he had raised millions for DeWeese's campaigns while on the public payroll.

"Sidella recounted an occasion when he raised concerns to DeWeese about the political nature of his own work," the grand jury wrote. "DeWeese responded that 'our saving grace is that everyone does it.' ''

DeWeese has spent the better part of three years denying any role in the heart of the scandal - that government bonuses went to legislative staffers for performing campaign work. He repeatedly said he delegated administrative matters such as granting of bonuses. The charges yesterday do not relate directly to that issue.

DeWeese issued a statement yesterday saying he had accommodated Corbett's investigation every step of the way.

"I've ordered that evidence be preserved," DeWeese's statement said. "I've honored subpoenas for the production of tens of thousands of documents. I've directed my staff to cooperate and not obstruct. I've met with the team of investigators on multiple occasions and I've taken substantial steps internally to change the culture of the caucus by implementing ethics training and whistle-blower provisions. Obviously I'm disappointed by today's actions." He declined further comment.

Last night, DeWeese stepped onto the House floor to vote with the majority on a pivotal bill to raise more than $200 million in revenue by legalizing poker and other table games - a measure DeWeese was first to sponsor months ago.

Looking drained, he also announced he was stepping down as majority whip, as required by House rules. "I've had a tough day," DeWeese said from the floor. "God knows what will be forthcoming in the future time." He said he was "irrevocably grateful" for messages of support from colleagues - and received a standing ovation.

To reporters' questions after he left the House floor, DeWeese repeated that he had known nothing about the bonus scheme that triggered Corbett's probe, and that when he learned of it he instituted new ethics policies for the Democratic caucus and cooperated with investigators "without stint or limit."

"I was disappointed today," he added before ducking into his Capitol offices.

His return to the rank-and-file will mark the first time since 1988 that he hasn't held a House leadership role.

The charges against Stetler, 60, stemmed from his past actions as a legislator and not his more recent tenure in Rendell's cabinet. He was picked by Rendell to serve as his revenue secretary last year. He left the House in 2006 after 16 years, and had also served as head of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, the caucus' political arm.

Dan Wiedemer, a top aide to that committee, told the grand jury that when Stetler was its head, the legislator nixed a proposal to shift a piece of political work from state-paid legislative staffers to a private company.

The work in question was "opposition research" - digging up dirt on opposing candidates to use against them, a tactic that has become commonplace in campaigns.

Wiedemer wasn't satisfied with the efforts of legislative aides and suggested to Stetler that the campaign committee pay for an outside firm to do the work.

Why would the campaign committee pay an outside firm when state aides had "a perfectly good system in place already," Wiedemer recalled Stetler asking, according to the grand jury presentment.

Stetler's attorney, Joshua Lock, could not be reached for comment.

At an unrelated briefing yesterday morning, Rendell told reporters that he had accepted Stetler's resignation with sadness, but added that Stetler was right to step down.

Stetler, Rendell said, "performed brilliantly and ably and with great integrity as secretary."

"Obviously, you cannot have a high-ranking public employee continue to function in a job like that with a cloud over his or her head," Rendell added.

Rendell appointed longtime state revenue official Daniel Hassell as acting secretary at Revenue, an agency with 2,100 employees and a $136 million annual budget. "He has been the heart and soul of this department for a long time," the governor said.

DeWeese, Stetler, and Rodavich were expected to surrender to a district magistrate in suburban Harrisburg today.

Last month, Corbett's prosecutors accused former House Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) and nine others with ties to the House GOP of spending $10 million in state funds to build sophisticated databases designed to give Republicans an edge in elections.

Perzel has said he did nothing improper and said Corbett, a fellow Republican, is using the investigation to promote his own announced run for governor next year.

The latest charges came less than a week after Corbett's office lost the first Bonusgate trial to make its way to court.

A jury cleared former Rep. Sean Ramaley (D., Beaver) of allegations that in 2004 he took a no-work job as a legislative aide to then-Democratic Whip Mike Veon.

Corbett said yesterday that the Ramaley verdict surprised and disappointed him. He suggested his team of Bonusgate prosecutors would work that much harder in the cases yet to come to court.

"When you lose one, boy, you really sharpen your focus," he said.