Sunday, August 30, 2015

DeWeese on DeStand

Those who know Bill DeWeese know he was on his best behavior when he took the stand in his own defense in his public corruption case.

DeWeese on DeStand

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He's the second longest-serving state lawmaker, elected in 1976 at the age of 26 from far-away Waynesburg in Greene County. He's been chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, House Whip, House Majority Leader, House Minoirty Leader and House Speaker.

He's best known for multi-syllabic words, flowery oratory and sartorial flamboyance -- including summertime attire of white bucks and boaters, year-round bow ties, and bullet cufflinks on days the House debates gun legislation.

He once referred to a lobbyist who angered him as "an abject, ignoble, mendacious knave...a wily, vainglorious popinjay."

But yesterday, in a Dauphin County courtroom in Harrisburg, state Rep. Bill DeWeese was muted -- in his attire, attitude and rhetoric.

Druring three hours on the witness stand at the end of his public corruption trial -- he's charged with authorizing the use of tax dollars for campaign work -- he spoke plainly, even deferentially. There were no big words. There was no bombast. He was no doubt well-coached by his legal defense team, headed by prominent defense attorney William C. Costopoulos.

What the jury got was a version of DeWeese and claims that he did nothing more than trust too many underlings, delegate too much authority and kept too busy with the larger workings of the House to notice a political machine eating $2 million in tax money behind the curtain of legitimate legislative business (if there is such a thing).

Mostly, he seemed to help his cause. But there were some slips. He often was cut off by Judge Todd Hoover or the state's prosecutor, Senior Deputy Attorney General Ken Brown, for launching into broad statements involving American history and the nature of politics, Walden Pond and Frank Rizzo.

He couldn't stop talking, forgetting that a court of law isn't the House floor where members often drone on about anything they choose.

And he did manage to raise his voice to a near yell while reading from a 2004 memo offered as proof that he was always interested in ethics compliance. It read, in part, that DeWeese "wants to make sure  that staff activities remain within legal limits." His voice rose in volume as he punched each word.

I have no idea what this jury will do. It takes up deliberations today. It might see DeWeese, as he was tagged by Brown, as a "common thief." Given present public attitudes of deep-seated resentment toward politicians and politics, that's entirely possible. This isn't the best time for a member of the Pennsylvania Legislature to face a Central Pennsylvania jury.

Some of the state's case struck me as petty: stuff about yard signs and paperwork for employee time off, DeWeese's dinners with college professors or staff picking up groceries or laundered shirts for the boss.

DeWeese, at 61, faces losing his office, a six-figure pension and going to prison. His stint on the stand was designed to prevent that. We'll soon see if it worked.

Daily News Political Columnist
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About this blog
John Baer has been covering politics and government for the Daily News since 1987. The National Journal in 2002 called Baer one of the country's top 10 political journalists outside Washington, saying Baer has, "the ability to take the skin off a politician without making it hurt too much." E-mail John at baerj@phillynews.com.

John is the author of the book "On The Front Lines of Pennsylvania Politics: Twenty-Five Years of Keystone Reporting" (The History Press, 2012). Reach John at baerj@phillynews.com.

John Baer Daily News Political Columnist
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