Former Pa. House Speaker to plead guilty Wednesday

Former Pennsylvania State House Speaker John Perzel is expected to plead guilty to corruption charges tomorrow, nearly two years after he was named along with nine others in a grant jury presentment.

The plea will complete the fall of a Perzel, a former restaurant maitre d’ who rose in the ranks of the legislature to become one of the state’s most powerful political figures.

Nearly two years ago, he and nine others were charged with using millions of dollars worth of state staff time and computer resources for partisan activity, including political campaigns.

Perzel said the charges amounted to “criminalizing politics,” and pledged to fight them. But earlier this month, three co-defendants, including his brother in law decided to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors. Now the judge in the case has issued an order saying Perzel and another defendant, Eric Ruth are scheduled for guilty pleas.

Perzel was a rowhouse politician elected to a state house seat from Northeast Philadelphia in 1978. He showed a gift for building alliances and cutting deals, and rose in the ranks of the Republican caucus to become majority leader and eventually speaker.

He was neither a flashy dresser nor an accomplished public orator. His specialty was the inside game in Harrisburg, and he showed a gift for accumulating and wielding power.

In 2001, he engineered a stunning legislative takeover of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, yanking control from the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia and giving it to a state-appointed board dominated by Republicans.

It was done literally overnight, and it gave the GOP control of one of the largest bases of patronage employment in the city.

Perzel lost the speakers’ post in 2006 when Democrats narrowly won control of the house.

He was targeted in 2009 in the second wave of criminal charges from the investigation known as bonusgate, because it initially focused on bonuses paid to Democratic legislative staff for political work.

Veteran political consultant Ken Smukler said Perzel got into trouble because he followed the lead of Democrats who were routinely using state staff and funds to work on political campaigns.

“It’s a blood sport in Harrisburg,” Smukler said. “I mean, control of the house is worth everything when you are a member moving into leadership and I think he saw what the Democrats were doing and he took advantage of it.”

Perzel and nine others were charged with using $10 million worth of state staff and computers for partisan activity. The judge in the case has scheduled a guilty plea for Perzel and co-defendant Eric Ruth. Three others, including Pezel’s brother in law have already entered guilty pleas.

Neither the attorney general’s office nor Perzel’s attorney would comment on the expected plea.

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