Preate Is Gone But Not Quite Forgotten The Attorney General's Resignation Became Official Yesterday. Staffers Had Mixed Feelings.

Posted: June 24, 1995

HARRISBURG — At 5 p.m. yesterday, Ernie Preate Jr. resigned as state attorney general, but his last day in office was Wednesday.

Late that afternoon, he held an impromptu meeting of 50 to 100 staff members on the 16th floor of the Strawberry Square office-mall complex where the Attorney General's Office has its headquarters.

"He thanked everybody for the work they had done for him," said Robert R. Gentzel, Preate's press secretary.

Preate's speech lasted less than five minutes. There was a round of applause when he finished. Then he went to Maine, where he attended - as a private citizen paying his own way - a national conference of state attorneys general.

He said in a statement that he wanted to say goodbye to the friends from across the country that he had made during the last 6 1/2 years that he was Pennsylvania's chief law enforcement official.

So went the final days of Attorney General Preate.

The week before, Preate, 54, pleaded guilty to a federal felony count of mail fraud, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $200,000.

His sentence is expected to be set in late summer or early fall.

Yesterday, the mood of employees was mixed. Some expressed ambivalence over the official departure of their already departed leader. Some preferred to keep their feelings to themselves.

"I just got off a three-day trial and I've really not thought about it," said William J. Yates, a deputy attorney general stationed in Williamsport.

Another deputy attorney general, who declined to be identified, said: ''It's like another day" - except for the local radio report he had heard while driving to work that it was Preate's last day.

Still, the deputy acknowledged, "it's really a sad, sad thing."

In Old Forge, Preate's hometown near Scranton, State Rep. Frank A. Serafini said there was "extreme disappointment" for what happened to Preate, but not for what Preate did.

"Around here, we just don't want to believe he committed a crime," said Serafini, a Republican who grew up with Preate and whose district office is a block away from the family home of Preate's recently deceased father.

According to Serafini, folks in Lackawanna County, where Preate was district attorney for a decade, used to talk about the rising Republican star becoming president one day. Now they wonder if he's going to spend time behind bars.

Since Preate's guilty plea, the political spotlight in Harrisburg has shifted to other issues. The struggle over Gov. Ridge's school-choice proposal quickly consumed the Capitol.

Even with the scandal fading, though, the Attorney General's Office continues to be a magnet for controversy. A battle is brewing in the Senate over who will run the office.

Ridge has nominated Thomas W. Corbett Jr. to fill the 1 1/2 years remaining in Preate's term. But until Corbett is confirmed by the Senate, the acting attorney general will be Walter W. Cohen, who was first deputy under Preate.

Senate Democrats, miffed by Ridge on a number of fronts, have threatened to hold up the nomination.

In Harrisburg yesterday, the only Preate-related event of note occurred when several TV stations went to the attorney general's main office to get videotape of the front door, Gentzel said.

"Other than that, people were going about their business," he said.

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