Saturday 20 November 2010

Lawmakers dogged by criminal pasts

Probe finds drug, gun offenses in backgrounds of some state legislators.

HARRISBURG — Drug offenses, gun charges, theft and drunken driving turned up in the backgrounds of some state lawmakers when the entire Pennsylvania General Assembly was checked against public records, news accounts and other sources.
At least five lawmakers were found to have convictions of criminal offenses and six others with convictions in cases that were later expunged or stricken. Among those with checkered pasts are three lawmakers representing the Lehigh Valley: State Sens. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton and Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Rep. Gary Day, R-Berks.
Another five who turned up in the AP investigation with records of arrests or citations either won acquittals or their cases were dropped.
In one case, a lawmaker's 1996 arrest for disorderly conduct inNorth Carolina remained, unresolved, on the books until the AP began asking about it. It was dismissed late last month.

The AP's background inquiry was undertaken as three current lawmakers face felony corruption trials next year related to the Bonusgate investigation into alleged corruption in the statehouse.
No felonies were uncovered and the misdeeds — many dating back decades — are not likely to result in expulsion under the Pennsylvania Constitution's language barring anyone from serving in public office who has been convicted of an "infamous crime."
But the state Supreme Court is poised to interpret that vague phrase in a pending case regarding whether a federal felony conviction should have prevented a man from serving as mayor in Wrightsville, a Susquehanna River town between York andLancaster counties. Previous state court cases have determined that infamous crimes include all felonies, but former Wrightsville Mayor Steve Rambler's conviction was for a federal charge the state Superior Court said would have been a misdemeanor under state law.
State lawmakers' criminal histories raise questions about what crimes should be a bar to public office, as well as how accountable political candidates and officeholders should be for offenses committed decades ago. As lawmakers, should they be held to a higher standard, or can years of public service outweigh past mistakes?
Two lawmakers' decades-old shoplifting cases, and a third who pleaded guilty in 1987 to possessing a gun with a scratched-off identification mark, show how the constitution's "infamous crime" prohibition lacks clarity.
That's because "infamous crime" has been defined by the courts to encompass offenses that affect the administration of justice, or are "crimen falsi," a Latin legal term for offenses with an element of dishonesty that include bribery, perjury, theft and receiving stolen property.
The Pennsylvania attorney general's office declined to comment about whether those three lawmakers should be removed, and district attorneys in the lawmakers' home districts expressed reluctance to seek their ouster, in part because the offenses happened so long ago.
Under state law, the term "infamous crime" does not necessarily mean a violent, or even serious, offense. Pennsylvania courts have ruled, for example, that it did not apply to a borough councilman who pleaded guilty to various offenses after he held his girlfriend at gunpoint in a car for three hours.
Rambler, the former Wrightsville mayor, pleaded guilty in 1996 to a federal felony charge of mailing threatening communications for sending about 30 letters — threatening to make public sexually explicit photos of people he'd contacted through swinger's magazines — unless they each paid him $50. Superior Court ruled in March that he should not have been removed from office, because the same offense would be a misdemeanor under state law. The York County district attorney is pursuing an appeal.
The high court could rule narrowly on the facts surrounding the case, or provide some broader guidelines to interpret the term "infamous crimes."
The AP's background checks on the Legislature may not have caught arrests made before computer records were kept, expunged cases, out-of-state charges or federal cases. Similar arrest histories may well turn up if comprehensive checks were made of lawmakers in other state Legislatures across the country, or of public officials at other levels of Pennsylvania government.
In the Pennsylvania General Assembly, among the 19 members with arrest records are three currently awaiting trial: Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, Rep. John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny.
All three are charged separately with misusing their offices by diverting staff or equipment for campaign purposes, and all three have vigorously denied the charges. Perzel, a 16-term incumbent, lost re-election on Nov. 2, while DeWeese and Orie were re-elected.
Former Reps. Steve Stetler, D-York, and Brett Feese, R-Lycoming, are also among the defendants awaiting trial in the attorney general's Bonusgate investigation that has charged state lawmakers and aides with illegally diverting staff and government resources to run campaigns, and for other improper purposes. Orie, facing similar charges, is being prosecuted by the Allegheny County district attorney's office.
Former Rep. Mike Veon, D-Beaver, and former Sen. Vince Fumo, D-Philadelphia, are both serving prison sentences after being convicted of public-corruption charges in separate cases.
The most extensive arrest record the AP search turned up belonged to Rep. John Myers, D-Philadelphia. His only conviction was a February 1987 guilty plea to having an unlicensed .38-caliber handgun, with an obliterated serial number, concealed in his vehicle, according to court records. He was sentenced to 15 months' probation.
Myers also was charged in Philadelphia with assault with intent to kill in 1972, and marijuana possession in 1980, but both cases were dismissed. He was accused of shooting at someone in Philadelphia in 1981, but was acquitted.
He was sworn in to the General Assembly in 1995.
Myers did not return several messages seeking comment, but a House Democratic caucus spokesman said Myers' gun conviction was not grounds for his removal from office. House Democratic spokesman Brett Marcy said caucus attorneys who reviewed the case after the AP questioned it concluded it does not prove Myers' dishonesty. Marcy noted the offense occurred more than two decades ago.
"It would be highly unlikely that a court would determine that a … guilty plea resulting from the removal of a manufacturer's mark from a firearm renders Rep. Myers ineligible to seek or hold public office, especially considering the underlying facts and circumstances of the crime," Marcy said.
Rep. Ronald Waters, D-Philadelphia, received a five- to 23-month sentence in 1981 after he was found guilty by a jury of possession with intent to deliver drugs. Court records show a police search of a Chester apartment turned up more than three ounces of methamphetamine, a drug-cutting substance, ammunition, cash, cocaine residue and two handguns with obliterated serial marks.
Two lawmakers have shoplifting convictions, according to state police: Sen. Leanna Washington, D-Philadelphia, in the suburb of Lower Merion Township, in 1977; and Day, who represents Berks and Lehigh counties, in State College, in 1988.
They are unquestionably minor offenses, but theft is a category of crimen falsi, and state appellate decisions have said crimen falsi violations amount to infamous crimes. Whether they are sufficient to warrant removal from office may one day be an issue for the courts to decide.
Day said he pleaded guilty to a summary citation for taking a box of film from a drug store as a 21-year-old student.
"This is not an infamous crime or anything that would disqualify me," Day said.
Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin said he was not inclined to pursue the matter, given the minor nature of the crime and the type of life Day has led.
"Yes, retail theft is a charge of crimen falsi," Martin said. "Does it affect his ability to effectively represent his constituents? No. And does it affect his trustworthiness, 22 years after the fact? I don't think so."
Michael Engle, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it was unlikely somebody with a summary retail theft conviction would be barred from holding office.
"I think it would be more appropriate to evaluate these situations on a case-by-case basis," Engle said. "You also have the issue, too, of how long ago did these things occur."
Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr., D-Allegheny, pleaded guilty in 1992 to felony larceny and misdemeanor assault charges related to a fight in the parking lot of a Pontiac, Mich., shopping mall when he was 20 years old. He served two years of probation, and two newspapers reported in early 2003 he had the charges expunged shortly before he was sworn in.
At least four current state lawmakers have been arrested for drunken driving — Rep. Dave Levdansky, D-Allegheny, Boscola, Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria and Browne. Levdansky, Boscola and Wozniak were all accepted into ARD. Levdansky may have lost re-election Nov. 2; his race has not been finally resolved.
Browne's driver's license was suspended after drunken-driving crashes in 1995 and 1999, and the charges remain on his record. He said the experiences have colored his approach to legislating.
"I've become more familiar and more adept on the issues related to addiction and recovery," Browne said. "It's something that's faced me personally and something I live with every day."
Boscola declined to comment.
Criminal scandals have arisen in the General Assembly periodically in recent decades. Just this spring and summer, federal investigators executed search warrants at the homes or offices of Sen. Bob Mellow, D-Lackawanna, Sen. Ray Musto, D-Luzerne, and Rep. Bill Keller, D-Philadelphia. None has been charged with a crime.
Former members of the General Assembly who have been convicted of criminal charges in recent years include former Reps. Jeff Habay, R-Allegheny, Linda Bebko-Jones, D-Erie, and Frank LaGrotta, D-Beaver. Habay did jail time, and LaGrotta is currently defending himself against prescription drug charges.
Going back a decade or so, Pennsylvania legislators have pleaded guilty to or were found guilty of perjury, extortion, environmental crimes, tax-related offenses and violating federal surplus property laws.
Ex-Rep. Tom Druce, R-Bucks, did state prison time after pleading guilty to fleeing the scene of a fatal accident in Harrisburg. Sen. Dan Delp, R-York, pleaded guilty to hiring a 19-year-old prostitute and buying her liquor. Druce resigned, and Delp did not seek another term.
A few members have successfully fought serious charges in recent years. Former Sen. Bob Regola, R-Westmoreland, was acquitted of perjury and other charges in 2008 related to the shooting death of a teenage neighbor, which the coroner ruled self-inflicted. Former Rep. Sean Ramaley, D-Beaver, was acquitted of public-corruption charges in his Bonusgate case.
Neither the House nor the Senate systematically checks the backgrounds of members to verify they are fit to serve, but an arrest record can be a problem for candidates on the campaign trail. Legal experts say if candidate's criminal history includes an "infamous crime," they could get thrown off the ballot if someone files a court challenging their nominating papers.
In recent history, lawmakers have generally resigned rather than go through an expulsion hearing after being convicted, but some of those cases have exposed conflicting opinions about whether someone can continue to serve while his or her appeal remains pending. That issue could arise if DeWeese or Orie are found guilty next year of the public corruption charges against them.
Any convictions could set off a fight over their right to remain office, and if history is a guide, that would likely become a bitterly partisan battle.

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