Ex-GOP aide's corruption ordeal

Elmer Bowman, escorted here to a hearing in Harrisburg, says he offered to talk to prosecutors in a corruption probe.
Elmer Bowman, escorted here to a hearing in Harrisburg, says he offered to talk to prosecutors in a corruption probe. (CAROLYN KASTER / AP)
Posted: November 26, 2012

HARRISBURG - The prosecutors who spent years building a sweeping corruption case against former State House Speaker John M. Perzel and other Republicans used a potent tool - granting immunity to those who cooperated.

In all, 87 GOP aides got such a deal.

Elmer Bowman was not among them, even though the former Republican staffer said he had information prosecutors needed as they investigated illegal taxpayer-paid campaign work.

In a lawsuit filed last year, Bowman alleged that he was sacrificed by his own lawyers. He said he repeatedly pressed his defense attorneys to arrange for him to talk with prosecutors so he could share incriminating evidence against Perzel, former State Rep. Brett Feese, and others.

Despite his pleas, Bowman said his lawyers never put him in touch with prosecutors. It was only after he hired a new defense attorney, Bowman alleged, that he learned prosecutors wanted to make a deal - and that his lawyers kept it from him.

By then it was too late. Bowman had been charged with 48 counts of corruption.

Under long-standing policy in the Capitol, aides and legislators who are being investigated have their legal bills covered by the state until they are charged.

In his suit, Bowman said this setup created a fatal conflict. He suggests the lawyers sold him out to curry favor with powerful Republicans. He pointed out that the firms - K&L Gates and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, both Pittsburgh based and among the largest in Pennsylvania - are active lobbyists in Harrisburg.

For K&L Gates, the legal payments received from representing aides and legislators were substantial. The firm was paid about $4 million in taxpayer funds to represent the GOP caucus, as well as Bowman and other aides individually.

The legal fees covered 14 months of work that ended when prosecutors filed charges in November 2009. In the end, prosecutors convicted nine people, among them Perzel, Feese - and Bowman.

K&L Gates, in legal briefs responding to the lawsuit, argued that Bowman knew the firm had multiple clients and signed a waiver clearing it of any conflict. Buchanan Ingersoll said Bowman was its only client in the probe.

But neither firm addressed Bowman's core allegation: that his own lawyers hid a possible immunity deal from him.

The full story of what happened to Bowman, 37, may never be known. His case was settled earlier this month. Under terms of that deal, he and the firms declined to talk about his allegations or reveal how much money he might have received as part of a settlement.

Bowman's side was laid out in his civil suit and his appearance in court as a prosecution witness. His complaint might sound like sour grapes from a convicted felon, except that when Bowman was sentenced in March, Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank G. Fina confirmed much of his account.

"This was an individual who the commonwealth made very great efforts to speak with prior to the charges being filed in this case," Fina told Dauphin County Judge Richard A. Lewis.

"For reasons that I don't believe I can go into at the moment, that was not able to happen. I do believe that if that had happened, Mr. Bowman would have been forthcoming, and he would have received immunity."

Fina stopped short of criticizing Bowman's lawyers or detailing their conduct. But he asked the judge to give Bowman a lighter sentence "based on what I think is a very unfortunate history here that occurred despite Mr. Bowman's wishes."

Bowman, known as "Al," spoke briefly with a reporter who went to his suburban home in Red Lion, south of Harrisburg, on a recent day.

A short, wiry man with a haunted look, he declined comment.

A big player in the scheme

Bowman was hired as a Statehouse aide in 1997, the year he graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in journalism. For much of his career, his work environment was dominated by the hyper-partisan Feese and Perzel.

He served as a top aide to both Perzel and Feese, the latter a former Lycoming County district attorney who became a state representative and a major GOP campaign strategist. Bowman was a significant player in a five-year scheme that ended up costing taxpayers more than $10 million, all spent illegally to boost Republican candidates.

Computer-savvy, Bowman specialized in developing sophisticated software and hardware tools to supercharge campaigns. According to Bowman's own account in court, he worked on up to 40 Republican campaigns from 2002 to 2006, charging the public for all or part of his time.

When state prosecutors began to issue subpoenas in 2008, Republican aides and legislators in the House lawyered up. K&L Gates was at the hub. With its multiple clients, it collected about two-thirds of the $6 million paid to 18 law firms hired by Republicans in response to the probe.

The practice of having law firms represent multiple clients in corruption cases has been controversial.

When federal prosecutors were investigating former Philadelphia State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, for instance, they noted in court that the same law firm was representing Fumo and all his fraud victims, such as the State Senate.

Sometimes lines are drawn. When the Democratic House caucus was under investigation in 2007 for paying illegal bonuses, the lawyers for the caucus took on no individual aides or lawmakers as clients, according to William G. Chadwick and Robert A. Graci, the caucus' attorneys.

In Fina's probe of the GOP, Bowman said he turned to K&L Gates for representation in 2008 at Feese's suggestion after receiving a subpoena. Bowman said he dealt with three K&L lawyers: John Krill Jr., Linda J. Shorey, and Abram D. Burnett.

Krill declined to comment. Efforts to reach Shorey were unsuccessful; she did not respond to e-mails or calls to her office. K&L spokesman Michael Rick said, "Parties in the case are bound by a confidentiality provision and are not able to comment."

Burnett, who recently left K&L Gates to become a lawyer for the U.S. Defense Department, said Bowman's lawsuit had "many fallacies," but he declined further comment.

In the suit, Bowman asserted that the firm's attorneys misled him by saying prosecutors were not "ready" to talk with him when in fact they were. At the same time, he says, they told prosecutors Bowman was unwilling to cooperate with them - when in fact he was.

In December 2008, Bowman says, K&L Gates told him he needed to get a new defense attorney. According to his suit, the prosecutors were pressuring K&L to withdraw as his lawyer on grounds that it had a conflict of interest in representing him. The suit provides no additional details.

James M. Becker, of the Philadelphia office of Buchanan Ingersoll, became Bowman's new defense attorney. In doing so, Becker entered into a "joint defense agreement" with K&L Gates. Such agreements are legal and designed to permit defendants to pool resources.

Becker represented Bowman for 10 months and was paid $78,000 in state funds. He declined to comment.

Buchanan Ingersoll spokeswoman Tracie Gliozzi said, "Everything is confidential, so we can't comment."

Throughout his struggles, his GOP colleagues had been watching with concern as Bowman's ordeal unfolded. A former top GOP aide, William Tomaselli, who was a key prosecution witness testifying under a grant of immunity, said he worried as Bowman's predicament deepened.

"I said to him: 'Al, get your butt on down there and talk to them. Just go over and knock on the door.' He said, 'My attorneys are saying they're not after me.' You don't know how bad I felt for Al."

Finally, by late 2009, Bowman had enough. "Frustrated," according to the suit, he ended his relationship with Becker and hired another attorney, Donna J. McClelland, based in Greensburg.

On Nov. 13, 2009, four days after Bowman made this switch, he was arrested when the grand jury issued its 188-page investigative report. From that point, Bowman had to pay his lawyer himself.

Within days, he and McClelland began negotiating with prosecutors. Bowman, Fina said later in court, "was in a precarious position because he was charged, and yet he very much wanted to cooperate."

In the end, he and prosecutors worked out a deal under which Bowman pleaded guilty to a single felony count and prosecutors agreed to drop the remaining 47.

Bowman was now ready to testify against his old colleagues. As it happened, his testimony was not needed against Perzel, who ended up pleading guilty ahead of trial.

But in October 2011, Bowman did take the stand against Feese. At the trial, Bowman lashed into his previous lawyers.

"I kept asking them when was I going to get a chance to go in to you guys," he said to Fina under oath. "Time and time again they kept saying that you weren't ready, you weren't ready for me. The AG's office wasn't ready for me."

He added, "I did not receive immunity because of them."

Joshua D. Lock, Feese's lawyer, returned to the issue in his cross-examination. "They messed up - is that the bottom line?"

Bowman replied: "They either messed up or did something worse."

Lock pushed to have the lawyers take the stand to rebut Bowman's accusation of what Lock called "professional wrongdoing."

That didn't happen.

Other attorneys for K&L Gates argued that they should not testify because to do so would violate their attorney-client obligation - to Bowman.

18 months' probation

While Feese, Perzel, and two former GOP aides received prison terms, Bowman was sentenced to 18 months' probation. It was the most lenient punishment given to any of those convicted. He also kept his state pension, $7,300 yearly.

But since he was charged in the case and left state employment, Bowman has struggled to find a job. Despite the M.B.A. he earned in 2002, no one would hire someone facing dozens of charges of theft from taxpayers, according to his 2011 defense presentencing memo.

In a letter to the judge, his wife, Danille, wrote that her husband had become a stay-at-home father of their three young boys while she went to work full time.

His crime "does not reflect who he is, his character, his morals or his values," she wrote. "It represents the trust he placed in someone that in hindsight deserves a lot less."

She did not identify that "someone."

'David v. Goliath'

In a way, the malpractice suit filed last year by McClelland on Bowman's behalf could have been captioned David v. Goliath.   McClelland is a part-time public defender in Westmoreland County and runs a two-person law firm with her brother.

K&L Gates has more than 1,800 lawyers worldwide. Buchanan Ingersoll has more than 400.

In their response, the two law firms argued in part that Bowman's suit should be thrown out under established legal precedent: Those convicted of crimes lose their right to sue their defense lawyers.

McClelland countered that it would be unfair to permit the firms to use this principle "as a shield against their own failures."

The county judge hearing the case disagreed and dismissed the suit. McClelland appealed to the state Superior Court. On Nov. 9, the case ended in the settlement.

It's unclear whether that will be the last word.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this spring, the same day Bowman was sentenced, that criminal defendants can appeal cases on the basis that defense lawyers had failed to pass on plea offers to them.

In a telephone interview, a winning lawyer in that case, Emmett D. Queener, an assistant public defender in Missouri, said the new precedent might permit Bowman to wipe out his conviction. "I think he's got an argument there," Queener said.

McClelland would not discuss legal strategy. She also would not say whether Bowman had complained to the state disciplinary board for lawyers. The board's chief disciplinary counsel, Paul J. Killion, did not respond to requests for comment.

But Robert H. Davis, a former acting chief counsel of the disciplinary panel, said the board's staff could act on its own to investigate.

"Based on the broad allegations of conflict made in the malpractice case," he added, "it would be appropriate for the office of disciplinary counsel to look at it."

'A Very Strange Situation'

When Elmer Bowman was sentenced on March 21, Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank G. Fina rose to speak on

his behalf.

"Your Honor, this defendant and this situation presents at least for myself a unique situation, insofar as this was an individual who the commonwealth made very great efforts to speak with prior to the charges being filed in this case," Fina said.

"For reasons that I don't believe I can go into at the moment, that was not able to happen. I do believe that if that had happened, Mr. Bowman would have been forthcoming, and he would have received immunity."

"Following the charges, in fact, at the time of the arrest, he immediately expressed his desire to talk with us. He came to our offices, I think it is fair to say, within days of the arrest and began talking with us and was in a precarious position because he was charged, and yet he very much wanted to cooperate.

"And again for reasons that I don't feel free to express, he

was not able to cooperate prior to his charging. But I do not believe that those reasons were reflective of Mr. Bowman's desires.

"I know I am being a little mysterious. Suffice it to say, I think I have some basis for making those statements, and so it is a very strange situation.

"And as the court knows, I have not in any of these cases recommended a specific sentence.

"But I might say in this case, Your Honor, it is a case that I would specifically request a mitigated sentence based on what I think is a very unfortunate history here that occurred despite Mr. Bowman's wishes."

Judge Richard A. Lewis, of the Dauphin County Court, asked Bowman to approach the court.

"Mr. Bowman," the judge said, "I do recall your testimony and I recall some of the other issues that came up regarding your participation and cooperation in the investigation. I will certainly take them into account, and certainly the comments of Mr. Fina will be taken into account as well."

With that, Lewis spared Bowman a prison term, sentencing him to 18 months' probation.

- Craig R. McCoy

Contact Craig R. McCoy

at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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