Birthday bummer: Legislator faces charges over parties

Posted: March 14, 2014

"I AM THE f---ing senator, I do what the f--- I want, how I want, and ain't nobody going to change me."

Those are the words allegedly used by state Sen. LeAnna Washington when her chief of staff confronted her about using state money to plan political fundraisers. The aide, Sean McCray, later was demoted and then fired by Washington last year.

McCray testified about his ex-boss to a state grand jury, which yesterday charged Washington with two felonies, accusing her of wrongly spending between $30,000 and $100,000 in state-taxpayer dollars.

Washington was released without bail yesterday after an arraignment before a Montgomery County district magistrate.

Her lawyer, Henry Hockeimer Jr., said Washington was disappointed in the charges and plans to fight them in court while she runs for re-election this year.

"We do not believe that the facts give rise to any criminal conduct by Senator Washington," he said, calling the charges "thin and specious."

State Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Washington used "intimidation and verbal abuse" to pressure her staff into doing political work on state time, planning annual birthday parties that doubled as her big campaign fundraiser of the year.

Washington, 68, a Cheltenham Democrat, has served in the Senate since 2005. She served in the state House from 1993 to 2005.

Another of Washington's former employees, who was responsible in the 4th District office for fundraising planning, helped investigators record a phone conversation with the senator.

During that call, staffer Jamila Hall told Washington that agents from the Attorney General's Office wanted to question her.

"Well, you can say we didn't do any campaign work in the office," the presentment quotes Washington as advising Hall.

Later, when Hall asked if the campaign work in the office was wrong, Washington responded, "Well it wasn't supposed to happen . . . "

Washington also fretted about the impact on her political career.

"You know, I'm so angry because, um, um, I don't know," the presentment quotes her as saying. "It's just a bad place to be, so I'll probably have to resign."

Five other employees testified about Washington's "heavy-handed, micromanaging style," the presentment said.

The grand jury alleged that from 2005 to 2013, Washington had some staff members who spent "almost all their time in the weeks and months" leading up to the fundraisers creating databases for potential campaign donors, printing and sending invitations and tallying the contributions collected at the events held at the Belmont Mansion in late July.

The state Senate's graphic-design department was used to create signs and posters for the fundraisers and to celebrate family events, the grand jury said.

The presentment notes that Washington has seen fellow members of the General Assembly convicted in recent years for using state resources to conduct political campaigns. One of them was former state Sen. Vince Fumo, who served more than four years in prison after being convicted in 2009 of a similar offense, among several others.

Washington "ironically trumpeted" her 2010 sponsorship of a Senate resolution covering rules of ethical conduct in response to the convictions of other legislators, the presentment notes.

Investigators searched Washington's offices in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Cheltenham in October.

Hockeimer, Washington's lawyer, said then that she was cooperating, adding that "this matter apparently was triggered by a disgruntled former employee who was terminated earlier this year."

That was an apparent reference to McCray, who reported Washington's office activities to law enforcement in Montgomery County a month before he was fired, the presentment says.

After McCray was fired, Washington asked the state Senate to post a private security guard at her Philadelphia office during business hours for eight days. The guard company was paid $896 for that work.

McCray yesterday said he feels vindicated by the grand-jury presentment and is exploring his legal options against Washington.

"I was very clear that I had made this an issue," he said of the alleged campaign work on state time. "It was very clear that she was determined to make me pay for that."

Washington on Tuesday filed nominating petitions to run for re-election. She is challenged in the May 20 primary election by two Democrats: Brian Gralnick and Arthur Haywood III, both of Cheltenham. A Republican, Robin Gilchrist of Cheltenham, is unopposed in his party's primary.

The state Senate's 4th District stretches from Logan in Philadelphia north to Willow Grove in Montgomery County.

On Twitter: @ChrisBrennanDN


comments powered by Disqus