State Sen. LeAnna Washington, a Democrat who for two decades has represented parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties, was charged Wednesday with using legislative staff to raise money for her campaigns.
Ending a yearlong investigation, the state Attorney General's Office said Washington spent at least $30,000 and possibly more than $100,000 in taxpayer funds to plan and promote a gala fund-raiser for her birthday each July.
The 30-page grand jury report outlining the case portrays a brazen legislator who behind closed doors flouted the same ethical rules that she trumpeted in public.
When a former aide questioned using staff resources for the party, Washington allegedly slashed his salary.
"I am the f-ing senator, I do what the f- I want, and ain't nobody going to change me," she told him, according to his grand jury testimony. "I have been doing it like this for 17 years. So stop trying to change me."
Washington, 68, said she was fighting the charges. "Yes, I am," she said in her only comment after being arraigned on counts of diversion of services and conflict of interest at a district court in Abington. Each charge is a felony; the diversion charge carries a maximum prison term of seven years, the conflict charge has a term of five.
A former House member who joined the Senate in 2005, Washington is the first sitting lawmaker to be charged by Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
In a statement, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) did not address the allegations but praised Washington's legislative record. He called her "a valuable member of the Senate Democratic caucus who has always been focused on meeting the needs of her constituents."
Prosecutors allege that Washington directed her office staff to spend weeks organizing and collecting donations for her birthday gala from 2005 through 2013. She is also accused of using Senate copiers to print mailers and banners, and failing to report at least $6,000 worth of in-kind donations.
Washington's attorney, Philadelphia lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer, said she vowed to fight the "thin and specious" charges.
"We do not believe that the facts give rise to any criminal conduct by Sen. Washington," he said in a statement.
Washington served in the House from 1993 to 2005 before moving to the Senate. She is the ranking Democrat on the aging and youth committee.
The first public indication of the probe came in October, when prosecutors served search warrants on Washington's offices in Philadelphia and Roslyn, seeking evidence related to campaign activity.
The grand jury presentment, signed last week, concluded that Washington hid the misuse of office resources from some staff and punished others who disagreed with her demand that they do campaign-related work.
"These employees heard repeatedly from Sen. Washington that if they did not like their jobs they could go elsewhere," the report said. "It was not uncommon for Sen. Washington to fire employees, cut their salaries, or reduce their work hours."
Jamila Hall, an aide to Washington from 2007 to 2012, allegedly testified that most of her hours between May and July were spent on the gala. Washington told her to be discreet and not "leave invitations on the copier or desks, and to work in a rear office that was out of sight," the presentment said.
As the probe heated up, Hall allegedly agreed to let investigators record one of her conversations with Washington. "If they ask you about the birthday party, say - I don't know what you say, say at one time we just stuff some envelopes after work or whatever," the senator allegedly told her.
Later in the same call, Washington allegedly said: "I'm so angry because, um, um, I don't know. It's just a bad place to be so I'll probably have to resign."
The grand jury report says Sean McCray, whose term as chief of staff was short-lived after he confronted Washington about the campaign activities, alerted authorities to Washington's alleged violations in January 2013 and was fired soon after.
Washington's attorney has previously said that the investigation was triggered by a "disgruntled" former employee.
The charges will likely be fodder for challengers on both sides of the aisle. Washington faces a May primary challenge from two Democrats. Before that, she faces a preliminary hearing, scheduled for March 26.
Inquirer staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.