HARRISBURG - In 17 terms in the state House of Representatives, Bill DeWeese has been called many things by many people: speaker, master orator, former Marine, history buff.

Now, Attorney General Tom Corbett is suggesting another label for one of Pennsylvania's best-known Democrats: thief.

Corbett's office yesterday charged DeWeese (D., Greene) with theft, conspiracy, and related counts for allegedly using his taxpayer-funded legislative staff to work on his campaigns.

DeWeese, 59, is the divorced son of a hairdresser and a steel mill worker-turned-Dodge dealer. He earned a bachelor's degree in history from Wake Forest University, and a sense of history informs his every word. The voice mail message on his cell phone says:

"Abraham Lincoln had a vivid sensibility for the beauty of the English language. Leave me a beautiful message and I will return your call."

The day he graduated from college, DeWeese joined the Marines and served as an active-duty officer from 1972 to 1975.

That aside, he has spent his adult life in the state House.

He was first elected in 1976. He exuded a love of Shakespeare, seersucker suits, bow ties and a clear vision of his future.

G. Terry Madonna, a politics professor at Franklin and Marshall College, first met DeWeese when he had just two terms under his belt. Madonna remembers the young legislator who stuck his hand out and said, "I'm Bill DeWeese, and I'm going to be speaker."

"Bill DeWeese's entire career in politics and government has been about one personal objective: to be the speaker of the House," Madonna said.

DeWeese achieved that goal and served as speaker for the 1993-94 legislative term. He lost the post after Republicans captured the House, but he remained the ranking Democrat until November 2008.

Yesterday's charges will force DeWeese to give up the title of majority whip, returning him to rank-and-file status for the first time since 1988.

Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington and Jefferson College, said the charges will surely tarnish DeWeese and his chances to rise again in the leadership ranks - but not without a fight.

"Bill DeWeese is an ex-Marine," DiSarro said. "He is not a person who is going to lay down. He is going to fight this all the way."

DeWeese is known for his voluminous vocabulary. His floor speeches often have colleagues scurrying for dictionaries.

His message is often so steeped in allusion and arcanery that foes are left wondering whether to be mad or to laugh. In 1997, he referred to then-Gov. Tom Ridge's spokesman, Tim Reeves, as "a doe-eyed, Kewpie lickspittle."

"Most legislators are down-to-earth, practical, mundane," said Madonna, pausing to choose a word DeWeese could appreciate. "He was grandiloquent."

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.