HARRISBURG — In the span of several hours Tuesday, former top House Democrat Bill DeWeese quit his legislative seat, attempted to win it back, and was sentenced to 2-1/2 to five years in prison for crimes committed while he was in office.
DeWeese, 62, resigned the seat he held for nearly 36 years shortly before a judge sentenced him for theft and other political corruption convictions stemming from the wide-ranging "Bonusgate "investigation in the Capitol. He was also ordered to pay $25,000 in fines and $116,000 in restitution to the state.
All on a day when he was also running unopposed on his party's ballot for a new term in Harrisburg.
Dauphin County Court President Judge Todd Hoover called the former legislator "the instigator" of a criminal scheme to use legislative staffers to do campaign work on the taxpayers' time and dime, and said the onetime House speaker and Democratic leader had violated the public trust.
"There is no doubt that you were the leader, the instigator … that this was designed by you," Hoover told DeWeese, adding that he nonetheless believed that the Marine Corps veteran from Greene County was "a good candidate for rehabilitation" and that his crimes did not "define who you are."
DeWeese is to report to authorities on May 14 to begin his incarceration. He could end up serving less than the 2?-year minimum because of a recent state law aimed at freeing nonviolent offenders early.
The normally loquacious DeWeese said nothing as he left the courtroom stone-faced. During the proceeding, he apologized to "my beloved family, and my friends and to all those who believe in me," but he stopped short of admitting responsibility for his crimes.
His attorney, Bill Costopoulos, said DeWeese planned to appeal his conviction and remain on the ballot in his rural, Southwestern Pennsylvania district. DeWeese was running unopposed in Tuesday's primary and will face a Republican opponent in November unless he withdraws.
"Bill DeWeese is still a Marine, and I have a lot of respect for his strength, but make no mistake about it, these past [few] years have been hell," Costopoulos said after the sentencing. "I believe that in the not too distant future, we will look back at this point in time at our criminal justice history and question, 'What are we doing?' There has been an assault on the legislature — some has been justified, some has not been — and I really believe Bill DeWeese falls in the latter category."
During his trial, DeWeese testified that he did not learn that his aides were doing political work on state time until after the Bonusgate investigation began in early 2007. Even after a jury convicted him this year, DeWeese professed his innocence.
In fact, prosecutors with the state Attorney General's Office on Tuesday tried to use those statements against him when asking Hoover to sentence DeWeese to a lengthy prison term.
"It is beyond ridiculous to portray a convicted felon as a victim — because that's what this whole charade on that side of the aisle has been about," said Senior Deputy Attorney General Ken Brown. "It's everybody's fault but his."
Brown called DeWeese "a predator" who had forced subordinates to go along with his illegal activity for fear of losing their jobs.
The courtroom was packed with DeWeese supporters. He submitted numerous letters of support, including ones from former state Attorney General Jerry Pappert, State Sen. Jeff Piccola (R., Dauphin), and Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney. His bid for a more lenient sentence also included testimony on Tuesday from former state Attorney General Walter Cohen and former state Inspector General William G. Chadwick Jr., among others. DeWeese had hired Chadwick during the Bonusgate investigation to look into corruption in the House Democratic caucus and craft a plan to correct it.