A Felon, But He'll Probably Be Re-Elected Anyway

Apr 14, 2012

It's been a rough stretch for Pennsylvania's state Legislature. Within the past two months, four onetime floor leaders have been sentenced, pleaded guilty or found guilty of corruption charges. But a jury verdict isn't stopping one of those legislators from running for re-election.

Former state House Speaker Bill DeWeese is campaigning for another term, though earlier this month, he gave a farewell address on the Pennsylvania House floor.

It's not that DeWeese expects to lose. In fact, he's running unopposed. It's just that the day he wins the primary, the 17-term Democrat will become constitutionally ineligible to keep serving.

Actually, He's Not Technically A Felon — Yet

In February, DeWeese was convicted of five corruption charges. A jury ruled he had used about $100,000 worth of state resources to conduct campaign work. The case was part of a long-running state corruption investigation that has led to the conviction of four legislators, plus one acquittal. When DeWeese emerged from the courtroom, he didn't apologize.

"I certainly feel I did nothing wrong," he said.

Pennsylvania's Constitution bars felons from holding office. DeWeese said that wouldn't stop his campaign.

"I believe that in the court of public opinion, I shall be favorably received to some substantial degree," he said to the gaggle of reporters.

DeWeese is now a felon, but that doesn't become official until the day he's sentenced, which happens to be the day of Pennsylvania's primary. So technically, he's eligible to run for office, even though he'll need to step down the same day. DeWeese is banking on an appeals court to overturn his verdict so he can return in time to run again in the fall.

A Likable Guy

Like a lot of people in Greene County, Ralph Bouchard likes DeWeese.

"If you needed to talk to him, he was always available," Bouchard says.

Standing behind the counter at a hardware store in Waynesburg, Bouchard says he assumes most legislators use state money to campaign. But he disapproves of DeWeese's quixotic effort.

"I think that's detrimental to the Democratic Party," Bouchard says.

It's usually hard to talk to people about state government. Most voters don't know who their state representative is. That isn't the case in DeWeese's southwestern Pennsylvania district. Not only do most voters have an opinion about the Democrat; they all seem to know DeWeese personally.

'I'm Still Going To Vote For Him'

Down the street at Classy Cuts, Cathy Hoskins is finishing up a perm for Marcia Marsh. They both insist DeWeese is a good man and have no problem with him running.

"He's brought a lot of new businesses, and like, the prison, and he's there for you," Hoskins says.

Marsh agrees. "He kept me on Social Security disability when they wanted to take me off it. And I can't work," she says.

"He just helps," Hoskins says.

Details that came out in the trial, like the fact that he threatened to fire a state employee for not doing enough campaign work, don't faze them. Nor does the fact that he won't be able to serve.

"I know. I'm still going to vote for him," Hoskins says. "And then if he has to, you know what I mean, give it up, then that's fine. I'm still going to vote for him."

"Me too," Marsh agrees. "He was loyal to me, so I'm going to stay loyal to him, too."

A Strange Day Ahead

DeWeese is proud of the fact that he got Pennsylvania to build two state prisons in his legislative district during his time in office.

"During this interview, right this second, I'm certainly thinking of the irony of some of my accomplishments, and the fact that I was able to build two big maximum security facilities," DeWeese says.

On April 24, DeWeese will win the Democratic nomination for an 18th term. He's running unopposed, after all. The same day, he'll receive a sentence of anything from probation to six years in prison. He'll become an official felon, and if he doesn't resign, the House of Representatives will expel him.

Yet barring a legal challenge, DeWeese will remain on the fall ballot. If he wins an appeal, DeWeese says he'll be back. If not, the 36-year legislator will have bid the House goodbye for the final time.

"I shall miss you. And I shall miss your friendship," DeWeese said to applause in his farewell speech on the House floor earlier this month.

Copyright 2012 WITF-FM. To see more, visit http://www.witf.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Here in the United States, it's been a rough stretch for Pennsylvania's state legislature. Within the past two months, four one-time floor leaders - four - have been sentenced, pleaded guilty or found guilty of corruption charges.

But as Scott Detrow of member station WITF in Harrisburg reports, a jury verdict is not stopping one of those legislators from running for re-election.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE BILL DEWEESE: And when you boil it down to the quintessential nub...

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Bill DeWeese is campaigning for another term. This month, he gave a farewell address on the Pennsylvania State House floor.

DEWEESE: There's a big word for fusing a big word and a little word together, but I forget what it is.

DETROW: It's not that DeWeese expects to lose. In fact, he's running unopposed. It's just that the day he wins the primary, the 17-term Democrat will become constitutionally ineligible to keep serving.

Let's back up a bit: in February, DeWeese was convicted on five corruption charges. A jury ruled he had used about $100,000 worth of state resources to conduct campaign work. The case was part of a long-running state corruption investigation that has led to the conviction of four legislators, plus one acquittal. When DeWeese emerged from the courtroom, he didn't apologize.

DEWEESE: I certainly feel I did nothing wrong.

DETROW: Pennsylvania's constitution bars felons from holding office. DeWeese said that wouldn't stop his campaign.

DEWEESE: And I believe that in the court of public opinion, I shall be favorably received to some substantial degree.

DETROW: DeWeese is now a felon, but that doesn't become official until the day he's sentenced, which happens to be the day of Pennsylvania's primary. So technically, he's eligible to run for office, even though he'll need to step down the same day. DeWeese is banking on an appeals court overturning his verdict, so he can return in time to run in the fall.

Like a lot of people in Greene County, Pennsylvania, Ralph Bouchard likes DeWeese.

RALPH BOUCHARD: If you needed to talk to him, he was always available.

DETROW: Standing behind the counter at Ace Hardware in Waynesburg, Bouchard says he assumes most legislators use state money to campaign. But he disapproves of DeWeese's quixotic effort.

BOUCHARD: I think that's detrimental to the Democratic Party.

DETROW: It's usually hard to talk to people about state government. Most voters don't know who their state representative is. That isn't the case in DeWeese's southwestern Pennsylvania district. Not only do most voters have an opinion about the Democrat, they all seem to know DeWeese personally. Down the street at Classy Cuts, Cathy Hoskins is finishing up a perm for Marcia Marsh. They both insist DeWeese is a good man, and have no problem with him running.

CATHY HOSKINS: He's brought a lot of new businesses, and like the prison, and he's there for you.

MARCIA MARSH: He kept me on Social Security disability when they wanted to take me off it. And I can't work. So...

HOSKINS: He just helps.

DETROW: Details that came out in the trial, like the fact DeWeese threatened to fire a state employee for not doing enough campaign work, don't faze them. Nor does the fact he won't be able to serve.

HOSKINS: I know, but I'm still going to vote for him. And then if he has to, you know what I mean, give it up then that's fine. I'm still going to vote for him.

MARSH: Me too. He was loyal to me, so I'm going to stay loyal to him, too.

DETROW: I'm standing outside State Correctional Institution, Greene. You could call this the prison that DeWeese built. He's proud of the fact he got Pennsylvania to build two state prisons in his legislative district during his time in office.

DEWEESE: During this interview, right this second, I'm certainly thinking of the irony of some of my accomplishments and the fact that I was able to build two big maximum security facilities.

DETROW: Here's what will happen next: On April 24th, DeWeese will win the Democratic nomination for an 18th term. He's running unopposed, after all. The same day, he'll receive a sentence of anything from probation to six years in prison. He'll become an official convicted felon, and if he doesn't resign, the House of Representatives will expel him.

But, barring a legal challenge, DeWeese will remain on the fall ballot. If he wins an appeal, DeWeese says he'll be back. If not, the 36-year legislator will have bid the House goodbye for the final time.

DEWEESE: I shall miss you. And I shall miss your friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

DETROW: For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.