Monica Yant Kinney: On electoral reforms, the silence is deafening

State Rep. Bill DeWeese, who awaits a jury's verdict, could be joining several other area leaders who have fallen far.
State Rep. Bill DeWeese, who awaits a jury's verdict, could be joining several other area leaders who have fallen far. (BRADLEY C. BOWER / AP)
Posted: February 05, 2012

As I type, jurors deliberate the fate of State Rep. Bill DeWeese, the former House speaker who will go down in history as a modern legislator who spoke primarily in 19th-century verse.

DeWeese, fond of phrases such as "wily, vainglorious popinjay" and "abject, ignoble, mendacious knave," is on trial for ordering staff to politick on taxpayers' time. Think Vince Fumo, but without the spying on ex-girlfriends.

"I didn't do anything wrong . . . and I still feel that way," DeWeese testified last week, echoing Fumo's "I was just being the best legislator I could be" defense. Prosecutors, however, dub DeWeese a "common thief" willing to defraud the public to retain power.

DeWeese got tangled in the same Bonusgate net that has caught many minnows and one leviathan, former House Speaker John Perzel.

Perzel spent three decades in Harrisburg, amassing the muscle to remake the 172d District in his image and snatch the Philadelphia Parking Authority from the city. In August, he admitted hatching the plan to use computer programs - paid for by the public - to engineer campaign wins for the GOP.

"I know now I committed a crime," Perzel told the jury, insisting he had willing help. "Everyone crossed the line."

How the mighty tumbled

Perzel awaits sentencing and faces up to 24 years behind bars. Meanwhile, in Trenton, former State Sen. Wayne Bryant finds himself temporarily sprung from the federal pokey and back in a familiar courtroom.

I can't think of another time a politician imprisoned on one set of corruption charges stood trial for other offenses, but this is New Jersey. It has probably happened before.

Bryant, who once described pocketing public paychecks as "living the American dream," earned his inmate number for using a low-show university job to pad his pension. He's now accused of no-show lawyering, accepting $192,000 from a developer seeking only his vote on billion-dollar projects.

So to recap, four of the most powerful men in two states could soon be prison pen pals - more if you count convicted officials of lesser stature. And still, we hear silence on electoral reforms like public campaign financing or term limits.

Have politicians been scared straight by watching the mighty fall? Or did reformers just give up?

Washing hands of clean?

Gov. Christie may have launched his political career locking up corrupt officials, but the last time anyone talked seriously about "clean campaigns" in the Garden State was 2005, when a suspicious experiment blew up in Democrats' faces.

After helping write the law piloting public funding of legislative races, South Jersey Assemblyman Lou Greenwald wound up in the embarrassing position of being the only ticket to qualify for public funds.

Greenwald's team collected $260,000, his share plus his failed Republican challengers'. But in an unprecedented face-saving move, the incumbent bankrolled his broke foes' campaign - all in the name of creating a supposedly fair fight.

Greenwald won, of course. Machine candidates usually do. And after filing a report no one read, the New Jersey Clean Elections Commission expired in its sleep, never to be heard from again.

In Harrisburg, an earnest, eager, and proudly "nerdy" newcomer, State Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Philadelphia), somehow won chairmanship of the Democratic Campaign Committee while pushing public financing.

The reform-minded Boyle introduced a baby step of a bill to remove the stench of money from State Supreme Court races. It's ludicrous enough that Pennsylvania politicized the high court, but if we must elect supremes, he asks, "do we really want justices who've had to raise money from the attorneys who wind up arguing before them?"

Naturally, Boyle's bill remains mired in the Judiciary Committee, where many commonsense measures go to die. Neither of us is the least bit surprised why.


Contact columnist Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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