- Associated Press - Friday, October 24, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania state Sen. Leanna Washington agreed to plead guilty Friday in a case in which prosecutors accused her of using her elected office for political and financial gain, including pressuring staff to organize an annual “birthday party” political fundraiser and collect the resulting campaign checks.

Washington’s lawyer, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., told a Montgomery County judge during a brief court appearance that the longtime Democratic lawmaker will plead guilty, although details were still being settled with the attorney general’s office.

A plea hearing was expected to be scheduled next week, and a spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office said that that was the agency’s understanding, as well. Washington was charged in March with one count each of theft of services and conflict of interest, both felonies. The attorney general’s office estimated the monetary loss to the state could range from $30,000 to more than $100,000.

Washington, 69, was the second Pennsylvania state lawmaker to be charged this year, and would become at least the 13th current or former state lawmaker to plead guilty or be convicted in the past decade.

Washington was elected to the Senate in 2005 after serving in the House for 12 years, but she lost her re-election bid in the May 20 primary to Arthur L. Haywood Jr. The heavily Democratic 4th Senate District includes portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

For eight years, Washington pressured her Senate staff to devote weeks to drawing up guest lists that included city and state officials, creating invitations and taking money from invitees that ultimately went to Washington’s campaign account, prosecutors say.

They also allegedly used taxpayer-paid computers, copiers and office supplies.

In a grand jury presentment issued with the charges March 12, prosecutors listed seven current or former employees or interns who said they witnessed or carried out tasks to organize the fundraisers. Hockeimer had initially contended that more evidence was necessary to prove that Washington oversaw a “knowing diversion” of taxpayer resources for political purposes, and said that no paper trail supported the allegations.

Fired former aide Sean McCray told the grand jury that he confronted Washington about the political activities in 2012. At one point, Washington responded with a profanity-laced rebuke, saying she’s the senator and she does what she wants and how she wants, McCray testified. “I have been doing it like this for 17 years. So stop trying to change me,” Washington responded, according to McCray’s testimony.

In a preliminary hearing, former employee Jamila Hall insisted that nothing happened in the office without Washington’s knowledge, and that her direction to do political tasks on state time came either from Washington or her chief of staff. Washington always approved the final product, such as the guest list, and she often checked up on fundraiser-related tasks to find out whether they had been completed, she had testified.

Employees who said “no” were fired by Washington, Hall said.

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