HARRISBURG - Former House Speaker John M. Perzel apologized today after pleading guilty to eight counts of conspiracy, theft and conflict of interest in a sweeping case alleging he misused public money for campaign purposes and then tried to cover it up.
"I want to express my profound regret for my actions," he said in statement, addressing the people of Pennsylvania, the voters who kept him in office for 32 years, friends and family. "You had a right to expect better from me, and I am sorry that I let you down."
Entering his plea before Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis, Philadelphia's onetime top Republican became the highest-profile official to cooperate in the case that stemmed out of the Bonusgate scandal in the Capitol.
Perzel, who had been charged with 82 counts, now faces up to 24 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
"I said from the start of this case that I would fight the charges against me, and I have done so for nearly every day of the last two years," he said in the statement, issued shortly after his court appearance. "It is a fight that has taken an enormous toll on my family and the friends who have been so steadfast in their support."
"I have decided today that my fight has come to an end. The truth is that as the legislative leader of my caucus, I oversaw the spending of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, and I bear the responsibility for the improprieties that occurred in the spending of those dollars. It was up to me to see that taxpayer funds were spent only for the betterment of the people of Pennsylvania, and not for my political benefit of that of my party."
Perzel's case, given the nickname "Computergate" by the court, grew out of the attorney general's wide-ranging Bonusgate investigation, which focused on House Democrats and taxpayer-funded bonuses they awarded to staffers who did political work, often on state time and using state resources.
In that case, 12 people were charged - three were convicted, including Mike Veon, a onetime top House Democrat; seven people pleaded guilty; and two were acquitted.
Perzel had been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and conflict of interest.
A grand jury found that Perzel had spent upward of $10 million in taxpayer funds to create as many as a dozen computer programs designed to give him and fellow GOP politicians an upper hand in elections.
The programs allowed Perzel, who represented Northeast Philadelphia for more than three decades, to analyze vast amounts of data and target campaign and fund-raising messages to voters more efficiently and effectively.
"Perzel was the architect behind a sophisticated criminal strategy that spent nearly $10 million of taxpayer money purely for campaign work," then-Attorney General Tom Corbett said when announcing the charges in November 2009.
Nine other people with ties to the House Republican caucus were charged along with Perzel, including his onetime chief-of-staff Brian Preski.
Also charged in the case was another former lawmaker, Brett Feese of Lycoming County.
Also pleading guilty alongside Perzel Wednesday was Eric Ruth, Perzel's nephew and a former House Republican technology employee. He pleaded to one felony count each of conspiracy and conflict of interest, said Evan Kelly, his attorney.
Earlier this month, Samuel "Buzz" Stokes, 69, of Philadelphia, Perzel's brother-in-law and former campaign manager; former campaign aide Don McClintock, 43, of Voorhees; and Paul Towhey, 40, of Blue Bell, all pleaded guilty in the case.
That leaves five other defendants. Aside from Feese and Preski, also awaiting trial are Elmer "Al" Bowman and Jill Seaman, both former aides to Feese. Jury selection in that trial is scheduled to begin in mid-September. John Zimmerman, a legislative aide to Perzel, is being prosecuted separately and is expected to go on trial later this year.