Political Fallout Experts: Roca Indictment Pulls Rug From Under Saidel

Posted: November 19, 1998

In a sharp blow to the reputation of one of Philadelphia's top-ranking elected officials, the former girlfriend and top political aide to City Controller Jonathan Saidel was charged yesterday with looting Saidel's campaign kitty for $36,000 to buy a new house - and to help Saidel pay his taxes.

Saidel wasn't charged in the 18-count state indictment against his alleged ex-lover Diana Roca, but state Attorney General Mike Fisher said a Harrisburg grand jury found that the three-term controller ``conspired'' with Roca in carrying out the scheme, and he left open the possibility of future charges.

The Daily News broke the story in May 1997 about the campaign's unusual payment to Roca, touching off a chain of events that led to the grand jury probe.

The 27-page grand jury report portrayed Saidel, the top fiscal watchdog in city government, as someone who gave his girlfriend virtual control over his political affairs, who twice got small personal financial bailouts from his campaign fund - and who then conspired with Roca to carry out the transactions, and to conceal them.

The 40-year-old Roca, who still sits as Saidel's appointment to the Philadelphia Housing Authority and is the government of Puerto Rico's representative in Philadelphia, had no comment for reporters as she surrendered at a South Philadelphia police station.

``At this time, the evidence that the grand jury has is sufficient to charge only Diana Roca,'' Fisher said at a news conference in Center City to announce the indictment. He said the grand jury is still in session, but also cautioned that some of the evidence gathered in the Roca probe can't be used against others.

Saidel said in a written statement that Roca ``was accused in a questionable prosecution. I am confident that once all the facts come to light, Ms. Roca will be cleared and her actions - and mine - will be found totally legal.''

Much of the information contained in the indictment was reported in May 1997 by the Daily News, which first reported the $36,000 payment by Saidel's campaign to Roca and how Roca used some of the money to buy a house in a new development in Fox Chase.

Although it's been known for some time that Saidel's campaign fund was the subject of a probe, many political observers were stunned yesterday by the news that Roca - a popular figure who ran for City Council in 1991 as a Republican and switched parties after meeting Saidel - had been booked on criminal charges.

Several experts said that even if Roca is cleared, the damage to Saidel's political prospects has already been done.

``If he had any mayoral ambitions, it's ended,'' Republican political consultant Chris Mottola said flatly, noting that Saidel has been embarrassed in the past by the collapse of a family-run bank and by charges of mismanagement at PHA, which he oversaw for a time. ``You can't have fiscal mismanagement and be a fiscal watchdog.''

Many believe that if the campaign finance scandal hadn't broken last year, Saidel would not only be running for mayor in 1999 but he would be leading the field.

``He'd be the white front-runner,'' said St. Joseph's University history professor and political observer Randall Miller.

Democrat Saidel, with a background in law and accounting, has been controller, responsible for auditing city spending and services, since 1989. He also recently served as campaign chairman for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city Democratic chief.

The father of four, Saidel was separated from his wife and involved in divorce proceedings during his alleged affair with Roca, who told the grand jury that the couple had a sexual relationship from the summer or fall of 1996 until May 1997, when the story about the consulting fee broke.

Several other political consultants who worked on Saidel's 1997 re-election campaign for controller told the grand jury that Roca was ``the driving force'' behind Saidel's political efforts.

Saidel's campaign manager, D.A. Jones, told the grand jury, according to its report, that ``he found himself answering to Roca, and thought it was unusual that Roca, who was the treasurer and rumored to be romantically linked to the candidate, was actually running the campaign.''

From 1993 through 1997, Roca was regularly paid by the Saidel campaign as a consultant, ultimately getting $427 a week.

In October or November of 1996, Roca told the grand jury, she asked Saidel if she could have a ``bonus'' at the start of 1997 in order to buy a new house, and she told him she would need $36,000.

But when Roca, as treasurer, filed an official campaign expense report covering the period that included the Jan. 3, 1997, check, she said the expenditure was just $23,000. Roca has maintained that the other $13,000 of the check was supposed to be listed as a loan, but that she forgot to file the proper paperwork.

As to what became of the $36,000, the grand jury found that Roca paid the developer building her home in Fox Chase $24,700, but that another $5,000 was paid to Saidel's parents, Israel and Mildred Saidel.

The report said that 10 days earlier, Saidel's parents had paid their son $5,000, and that bank records suggest the funds allowed Saidel to pay a $4,680 city real-estate tax bill and a $1,000 net profit tax.

The grand jury also accused Roca of filing a false campaign-finance report in 1995, when the campaign fund loaned $2,500 to Saidel but never reported the transaction. Saidel paid the money back.

If convicted on all 18 counts, which include theft, perjury, conspiracy and filing false campaign reports, Roca could received as much as 23 to 48 years in prison and fines in the area of $100,000.

The indictment by Fisher, who also recently announced that he's investigating the fiscal collapse of the Allegheny hospital network here, will certainly boost his political visibility. A Republican, he's up for re-election in 2000.

Indeed, lawyers for Roca and Saidel questioned Fisher's motives in bringing the charges, noting that Roca had returned the money in question and that the campaign had amended the report, a common practice, to reflect that the check was for $36,000.

``Every political candidate in Pennsylvania who has filed a campaign finance report and filed it a day late or is a dollar short in what they report, should take note of this,'' said Roca's chief lawyer Walter Cohen, a former acting attorney general.

``There has never before been a prosecution in this kind of factual situation.''

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