DeWeese – it didn’t have to come to this

    Former Pennsylvania House Speaker is by my count the 21st person to be convicted or plead guilty in a lengthy investigation of the use of public employees and tax dollars for political purposes in the legislature.

    He is certainly the most colorful, having once referred to an opponent as a “mendacious knave.”

    DeWeese declared his innocence from the witness stand and to reporters after the trial.

    “I certainly feel I did nothing wrong and I think that a western Pennsylvania Greene-Fayette-Washington county jury would have found me innocent,” DeWeese said.

    I believe he believes that.

    Because DeWeese, and Philadelphia Republican John Perzel, another former Speaker who went down in the probe, were playing the game the way it was played at the time, by everybody, on both sides of the partisan divide in the capitol.

    Both sides saw their public offices, public employees and tax dollars as almost indistinguishable from their campaign funds.

    DeWeese was convicted of putting a guy named Kevin Sidella on the public payroll to raise money for him and other Democrats (Sidella still does this, just not on the taxpayer’s dime).

    According to prosecutors when Sidella at one point raised a concern with DeWeese about the political nature of his work, DeWeese responded, “our saving grace is that everyone does it.”

    When you’re operating in a corrupt culture, your perspective warps. You begin to think “well, it’s fair that we do this, because the Republicans do it, and we’re kind of a check on each other.”

    No, pinhead! Everyone is not supposed to do it. You’re there to serve the public. The fact that the other party does it too makes it doubly wrong, not right.

    But DeWeese and scores, maybe hundreds of others in Harrisburg just couldn’t see that, because what they were doing seemed so completely normal.

    Which brings me to a point I’ve made before about the Philadelphia Board of Ethics. In this agency, we’re blessed in Philadelphia with a body that constantly makes smaller, more frequent corrections to our public conduct.

    For example in December, the board brought an action against two City Council employees for doing exactly the kind of the thing our friends in Harrisburg did with such abandon.

    Michael Quintero Moore and Kacy Nickens were both employees of Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, and they used city computers and printers to do political work on city time – printing fliers for a fundraiser and printing election-day notices of their boss’s endorsement in a Council race.

    They were caught, and both lost their jobs and paid fines. They paid a cost, but their lives weren’t ruined we didn’t have a multi-million dollar criminal investigation. There was a quick, decisive action that made the point to everybody in city hall that this stuff is prohibited, and you can get nailed.

    If somebody had been doing that around the state capitol ten or 15 years ago, guys like DeWeese might not have lost their bearings.

    Thanks to our Harrisburg correspondent Mary Wilson for her reporting and photo on the DeWeese story. Read Mary’s blog, State House Sounds bites here.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.