Perzel sentenced to up to 5 years for Computergate

John Perzel: Plea in August ended 32-year career.
John Perzel: Plea in August ended 32-year career. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / FILE PHOTO)
Posted: March 21, 2012

HARRISBURG - The mastermind of a scheme to steal millions in taxpayer money for his own political benefit stood in a courtroom Wednesday and, in a low voice stripped of its old bravado, offered an apology.

"I have embarrassed myself, my family, my friends, and the people of Pennsylvania, and for that, I am truly sorry," a grim John M. Perzel said moments before being sentenced for his role in the so-called Computergate case.

"They gave me a great honor, and I disgraced them," he added, "and I'm very sorry for it."

His apology was not enough.

Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis sentenced the onetime Republican powerhouse from Northeast Philadelphia to 21/2 to 5 years in state prison, $30,000 in fines, and $1 million in restitution. Perzel, 62, is to turn himself in to authorities April 11.

Thus will yet another Philadelphia politician who spent decades amassing power and wielding clout end up behind bars.

In meting out the punishment, Lewis called the former Republican House speaker's conduct a "shocking and flagrant violation of the public trust" that sacrificed "legitimate legislative work."

His "quest for power," said Lewis, damaged reputations and tore apart the lives of several people who worked for him - and who ended up being charged with him by the state Attorney General's Office in the case.

But Lewis said he wanted to balance Perzel's crimes against his larger life story: his three-plus decades of public service; his contributions to the community he represented; his charitable giving; his devotion to his wife, Sheryl, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

"No doubt, he is a man who has led a good life," the judge said as he announced the sentence.

Perzel said nothing as he maneuvered past a horde of reporters to leave the courthouse.

"This case is about his mistakes," his lawyer, Brian J. McMonagle, said in court, "but his life is about a lot more than that."

Perzel could end up serving just under two years of his sentence, thanks to a recent state law aimed at freeing nonviolent offenders early.

The Republican pleaded guilty in August to eight of 82 counts of conspiracy, theft, and conflict of interest - almost two years after he was charged, with nine others connected to the House Republican caucus, in Computergate.

Prosecutors alleged he was the architect of a scheme to spend more than $10 million in taxpayer money to buy sophisticated computer programs that were then used to help win political campaigns.

The programs allowed Perzel to analyze vast amounts of data and target messages to voters more efficiently and effectively. The motivation, prosecutors said, was simple: to remain in power.

Charged with him was Brian Preski, a Philadelphia lawyer and Perzel's onetime chief of staff. Preski, 46, was sentenced Wednesday to two to four years in prison, five years' probation, $1 million in restitution, and $37,500 in fines.

Preski had interrupted his own trial last fall to plead guilty to 10 of the 54 counts of theft and related offenses he was facing. Unlike Perzel, his plea did not include cooperation with investigators.

Five others have pleaded guilty in the case; two were convicted, including former Rep. Brett Feese (R., Lycoming). Charges were dropped against a remaining defendant.

Also sentenced Wednesday were Eric Ruth, Perzel's nephew and a former House GOP technology aide, who received 60 months' probation, a $7,500 fine, community service, and $50,000 in restitution, and Elmer "Al" Bowman, a former Feese aide, who was sentenced to 18 months' probation, community service, and a $2,500 fine.

In some ways, Perzel's story was quintessential Philadelphia. The son of a waitress and a Linotype operator, he worked as a dishwasher and maitre d' before he was elected to represent a blue-collar section of Northeast Philadelphia. Over the next two decades, he doggedly climbed the ranks to the House GOP leadership.

As majority leader and later as House speaker, he took part in nearly every major deal negotiated in Harrisburg. He could be shrewd, quick-tempered, and ruthless, qualities suited to Harrisburg's male-only political old guard. Shunning the limelight that accompanied his post, he was never one to be easygoing or particularly comfortable in front of the cameras.

In 2010, with the charges pending, Perzel was voted out of office in an election that saw other Republicans triumph.

He took a lump-sum pension payout of $203,000 - his contributions to the retirement system, plus interest - and until his plea, he collected annual pension checks worth $85,653.

On Wednesday, Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina said Perzel had taken responsibility for his actions, "demonstrated remorse," and cooperated with investigators on Computergate - and in unrelated matters as well. Fina declined to elaborate.

"It really makes a big difference to step forward, plead guilty," the prosecutor said. "It's a good message in the future to politicians that . . . they should never be using the public's money and resources for personal reasons."


Contact Angela Couloumbis

at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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