Philly state senator faces criminal charges

    I read the words. I rub my eyes and read them again.

    Yep, that’s what it says: A state grand jury finds that after a parade, and I mean a parade, of Pennsylvania state officials in the last five years goes to jail for using taxpayer-funded staff for political work, state Sen. Leanna Washington does exactly that.

    When her chief of staff objects, she tells him, “I am the f——  senator, I do what the f— I want, how I want, and ain’t nobody going to change me.”

    Allegedly, of course. Washington, who’s been in the legislature for 20 years, will have her day in court.

    But Washington, a Democrat who represents parts of Northwest Philadelphia and Montgomery County, now faces criminal charges and a grand jury presentment that offers a detailed account of her directing her staff to work day after day every summer on her big annual fundraiser. The presentment names seven employees who told their stories to investigators from the state attorney general’s office.

    According to the presentment, Washington even used the Senate Graphic Design Department in Harrisburg to make signs for the fundraiser.

    Does she read the papers?

    Anybody who even casually follows Pennsylvania politics knows of the Bonusgate investigation that put two former state House speakers and a host of others in handcuffs for treating public resources like a campaign apparatus.

    Most of the acts Washington is charged with occurred after those charges started coming, and after everybody who works in the Legislature got training on what they can and can’t do.

    I’ve heard that most lawmakers and their staffs are a lot more conscious of the lines between government and political work now, and perhaps the one encouraging thing in the case against Washington is that her chief of staff, Sean McCray, objected to what was happening and eventually met with law enforcement about it.

    McCray’s complaints to Washington earned him a pay cut, a load of f-bombs and, eventually, dismissal, according to the grand jury.

    Washington came up through the ranks of Philadelphia Democratic politics, moving into the Legislature when a seat opened in 1993, then on to the state Senate. It’s tempting to say that she learned the ways of Philly politics too well, and that’s why she’s in a fix. It’s also noteworthy that several of her staff members described her as a tough, verbally abusive boss, which doesn’t exactly encourage people to stand with you when detectives come knocking.

    We haven’t heard Washington’s side of any of this yet. She’s wisely engaged experienced attorney Henry Hockeimer and will let him do the talking for now. In a statement released late Wednesday, Hockeimer said Washington “will fight. We plan to vigorously contest these thin and specious charges in court.”

    Lucky guys

    As it happens, Washington is running for re-election this year, and she has two opponents in the May Democratic primary.

    Brian Gralnick, a non-profit administrator from Cheltenham, said Washington has some explainging to do. “She needs to come clean in a public setting about what role she played, and what she did do and did not do with taxpayer money,” Gralnick said.

    Both Gralnick and the other challenger, attorney Arthur Haywood, said they got into the race because of policy differences with Washington and a belief she doesn’t represent the values of her constituents.

    Haywood said Washington deserves the presumption of innocence on the charges against her. “I really don’t know if the allegations are true or not true,” Haywood said. “But I can say that if I’m the state senator, we will have an office with the highest level of integrity, and we’ll be careful to use the taxpayers’ money on what’s appropriate.

    Can Washington survive the primary? It’s hard, though not unprecedented, to win an election while facing criminal charges. A lot will depend on whether the party organization stays with her.

    The city Democratic Party almost always backs incumbents. It will be interesting to see what they do in this race.

    In a recorded phone call cited in the grand jury presentment, Washington told a former aide when discussing the investigation, “It’s just a bad place to be, so I’ll probably have to resign.”

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