Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
November 12, 2009
Corbett guv run tainted by conflict of interest charges?
CHRIS BRENNAN; firstname.lastname@example.org 215-854-5973
State Attorney General Tom Corbett, now running for governor, met with state Rep. John Perzel, of Philadelphia, at a Harrisburg hotel in October 2007.
Two months later, Brian Preski, Perzel's former chief of staff, organized a campaign fundraiser for Corbett. In state politics, nothing about either event would seem strange. A high-profile elected official is expected to meet with members of his political party while seeking the state's highest office.
But Corbett's office at the time was actively investigating Perzel and Preski and others in the state General Assembly in what is now a 21-month probe known as "Bonusgate." Corbett charged 12 Democratic legislators and staffers in July 2008 with theft, criminal conspiracy and conflict of interest. Indictments against Republicans could come as soon as today.
Corbett is taking shots from both Republicans and Democrats for campaigning while serving as the state's top prosecutor in a massive political-corruption case.
U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, a rival in the May 2010 Republican primary election, has hammered Corbett for "seeking political support of GOP legislators, party leaders and key contributors" while leading the investigation.
"I think the perception has been out there for quite a while that Tom Corbett has a conflict of interest that needed to be resolved," Gerlach's campaign manager, Scott Migli, said this week.
Philadelphia businessman Tom Knox, running for the Democratic nomination, last week called Corbett's dual roles "dangerous" since it "creates a terrible perception among voters that government decisions are not being made in the public interest - but in their own self-interests."
John Zimmerman, a top staffer for Perzel, scheduled the Oct. 2, 2007, meeting with Corbett at a restaurant in the Harrisburg Hilton & Towers.
Also attending was Brian Nutt, Corbett's chief of staff, who is now his campaign manager.
Nutt this week said that he recalled that the topic of the meeting was "related to official duties" - Perzel wanted to give Corbett information about computer software that could be used to track registered sex offenders.
Corbett's run for governor probably came up during the meeting, Nutt said. "I'm sure somebody said something like: 'How are your chances?' " he added.
Perzel's attorney, Walter Cohen, told the Daily News that Perzel recalls that "several matters were discussed but he is not prepared to discuss it with you at this time."
Cohen, a former attorney general, said that it was up to Corbett to say whether the meeting with Perzel was appropriate.
"John Perzel met with anybody who wanted to meet with him - government officials, constituents, private citizens, lobbyists, lawyers - and felt all that was appropriate," Cohen said.
The Bonusgate probe is focused on $3.6 million in state money doled out in 2005 and 2006 to General Assembly staffers who did work on political campaigns.
Corbett and his staff have repeatedly said from the start of the probe in February 2007 that the actions of Democrats and Republicans were being studied, regardless of party affiliation.
The state House Republican Caucus received its first subpoenas in the probe three weeks after Corbett met with Perzel. Zimmerman, who went on to become the open-records officer for the caucus, was the first Republican staffer called to testify before the grand jury in the case, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported in June 2008.
Appearance of a conflict
Preski was point man for a Corbett fundraiser on Dec. 11, 2007, at the Philadelphia law offices of WolfBlock. Preski had already contributed $500 to Corbett's campaign. That money was refunded to Preski in February 2008. Nutt said that Corbett decided after the probe began to decline contributions from state legislators. That policy was expanded - Nutt wasn't sure if it was late 2007 or early 2008 - to included people employed by legislators.
That's why Preski's contribution was returned, Nutt said.
Corbett realized early on in the probe that contributions from legislators could look troublesome. "Quite frankly, it's the appearance of a conflict more than anything else," Nutt said, noting that the ban on contributions from legislators was voluntary and not mandated by state law.
A former WolfBlock partner who is active in politics and who asked to remain anonymous for this story recalled the fundraiser that Preski ran for Corbett at the firm.
"Brian helped a lot of people," the partner said. "I think at that time nobody suspected that Brian was in any trouble." WolfBlock, which announced in March that the firm was dissolving, spent $1,044.95 on food and beverages for the 2007 Corbett fundraiser, records show.
The focus on Preski in the investigation is likely the $31,900 he received in state-funded bonuses in 2005 and 2006, when he did political work on the side for Perzel while keeping his state post.
Investigators are also examining whether a state-funded database used to track voter-registration information was improperly used by House Republicans like Perzel for political purposes.
Preski and his attorney declined to comment about the Corbett fundraiser or the ongoing investigation.
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