Making a Bonusgate Example of John Perzel

New Harrisburg concept: Politicians working for taxpayers

Former House speaker and defanged Philadelphia powerbroker John Perzel appeared on the edge of tears last week as he left the Dauphin County courthouse after pleading guilty to eight counts stemming from the wide-ranging legislative corruption probe best known by the somewhat inaccurate moniker Bonusgate.

Outside of family members, few were likely moved by Perzel’s demise. Prosecutors say he was the mastermind of a long-running House Republican scheme that frittered away $10 million in taxpayer funds on sophisticated election analysis software that gave Perzel’s favored candidates a leg up. The evidence against Perzel was damning, and he deserves the prison time he’s likely to get.

But it is worth remembering, as we observe his political passing, that Perzel is arguably something of a fall guy for a statehouse culture where, until very recently, mixing politics with official business was standard operating procedure.

As a former legislative staffer for both Republicans and Democrats put it to me recently, prior to Bonusgate, “there was absolutely no distinction between the public business and the political business.”

And until Tom Corbett came around, nobody considered it all that big a deal.

“I was doing this right there in the open. Everybody knew what was going on. Those of us doing the political work mingled with everybody else. It was never hushed up. At no point was there any reluctance to mesh the public and the political,” said the former staffer, who stopped working for state legislators years ago.

One of this former staffer’s bosses paid him out of campaign funds. Another boss, though, put him on the state payroll, even though his work was almost entirely political in nature.

“Everybody behaved like this was on the up and up, and so I figured that it was,” said the former staffer, who was just out of college at the time. “It seemed like it was just the way it was done.”

And so it was, particularly in the leadership offices, where budgets are bigger. Perzel was obviously no exception. Indeed, he showed a knack for obliterating the line between politics and official business early in his career, and that tendency only grew as he climbed the legislative ranks.

Gov. Corbett, who as attorney general launched the sweeping corruption probe that toppled Perzel, told the Patriot News last week that “there are many elected officials that do a wonderful job that have not done anything wrong and should not be tarred with a brush by the actions of a few.”

It’s a nice sentiment, and a politic thing for a new governor to say now that he has to work with the legislature instead of indicting it. But “few” is perhaps not an entirely accurate word in this context. For instance, Corbett’s probe on the Democratic side of the aisle found that 80 of 100 Democratic house staffers who got taxpayer-funded bonuses in 2006 had worked on the campaigns of either then-House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese and/or his whip, Rep. Mike Veon.

Those who defend DeWeese, Veon, Perzel and others have cast Bonusgate as instances of politically motivated selective prosecution. But there’s nothing unusual or suspect about a prosecutor picking and choosing his battles. Resources are limited, after all, and the point of a justice system is not just to punish the guilty, but also to deter crime in the first place. Going after high-profile targets, like Perzel, is a good deterrent to bad behavior.

And on that count, Bonusgate seems to be working. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that state legislators have gotten less cavalier about using public resources for their own political advantage. At minimum, they are being less obvious about it.

Granted, forcing state lawmakers to make political calls on personal cell phones instead of taxpayer-funded office lines isn’t going to drive down unemployment or restore higher education funding. But it is if nothing else a daily reminder to elected officials that they are supposed to be working on behalf of the public, not just their re-elect campaigns.

So let Perzel cry for himself.

Follow Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter at @pkerkstra.