The wheels of justice turn slowly. But now and then, a miscreant gets exactly what he deserves.
On Wednesday (Aug. 31), former speaker of the Pennsylvania House John M. Perzel admitted to public corruption at last. His guilty plea to eight criminal charges made him the highest-ranking state politician to be convicted in a more than four-year probe. Now he'll go to jail. How did it happen? Perzel craved power. Like others caught in the investigation's net, he got just a bit too greedy.
Perzel could serve as a poster child for the rewards of gerrymandering, politicians' self-interested practice of drawing political district boundaries to benefit their party and insure their re-election. A decade ago the politically composed redistricting commission redrew his 172nd district from a compact and contiguous one, in keeping with the constitution, to a virtual shell that excluded those who might not vote for him.
But a safe seat wasn't enough. Perzel was ambitious for his party, too. Prosecutors portrayed the 61-year-old veteran politician as spearheading a plan to spend millions of taxpayers' dollars to buy computer technology and data mining that would benefit Republican political campaigns. It's illegal to spend taxes on campaigns. Perzel was an old hand. He was first elected to the state House in 1979, became party whip in 1993, majority leader in 1995 and served as speaker from 2003-07. Under a cloud, he lost his last election bid last November.
In the end, prosecutors dropped dozens of charges, but Perzel pleaded guilty to two counts of conflict of interest, two counts of theft and four counts of conspiracy.
Perzel was a big catch, but hardly unique in the devious ways he maintained or enhanced his power, flouting voters through self-interested redistricting and misusing funds. Perzel's case grew out of the "Bonusgate" inquiry that disclosed how politicians had given legislative employees millions of dollars in bonuses for doing campaign and other work on their behalf. Former Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver County was the biggest Democratic fish swept up in the Bonusgate net; he's now in jail after a jury conviction. Several others have pleaded guilty, were acquitted or await trial.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. The once-a-decade redistricting process is occurring again now; at least this time around, the meetings are public, so citizens can attend. And they can monitor the results on the website www.recistricting.state.pa.us. But citizens have to be vigilant about their elected officials. Many of them can't be trusted to serve the interests of their constituents. They're far too busy looking out for themselves.
- Pocono Record