HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The Pennsylvania Legislature has spent more than $2.8 million in public funds since 2011 on private defense lawyers for state legislators and staff, most of it on cases that have sent lawmakers to jail, forced resignations at the highest levels of government, and prompted plea deals and immunity agreements for staff.
The Associated Press found in a review of legal bills that the spending stretched across some of the state’s most high-profile scandals, including the use of a ghost employee to funnel money to a relative, the misappropriation of public property and the illegal use of millions of dollars for campaign work.
In a case brought by the AP, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the Senate could not withhold certain information about legal bills paid by taxpayers. The Senate spent nearly a quarter-million dollars fighting the case, arguing that general descriptions of legal services and client names were shielded by attorney-client privilege.
In response to a Right-to-Know request, the House and Senate released hundreds of pages of legal bills incurred by lawmakers in criminal matters.
But Senate Democrats and Republicans would not disclose the names of all those getting attorneys, and documents they did provide were heavily redacted. A Senate Democratic spokeswoman declined to provide any answers beyond what was produced by Right-to-Know requests.
In both chambers, payments end if the member or staffer is charged with a crime. In many cases, the legal fees paid for people who were witnesses only and not suspected of committing crimes themselves.
The invoices that were produced documented the nuts and bolts of legal representation, from meetings and phone calls to drafting letters and emails. They also outline terms of representation, including what several lawyers said were below-market fees.
In the House, where both caucuses disclosed all names of those who got legal advice in criminal matters, Democrats paid lawyers about $150,000 during the period.
About $40,000 went to help Rep. Curtis Thomas of Philadelphia when he became caught up in the federal investigation of a chiropractor accused of gaining access to city accident records, at no charge, with help from an unidentified state representative.
The representative, referred to as Person No. 1 in the indictment, wrote a letter to city officials seeking free access to accident records for Ethel Harvey. It said she was “undertaking a very important research project which deals with seat belt injuries on African-Americans,” according to a government filing. Prosecutors said that statement was false.
Harvey ended up pleading guilty to mail fraud and was ordered to make $1 million in restitution to the city.
Thomas, who was not charged, defended the payment for his legal expenses, saying he felt at times like a witness and other times like a target.
“If it’s purely legislative,” he said. “Now, if it’s something that’s arising out of a private situation, a private person, no, but if it’s purely legislative, legislative related, then yes.”
House Republicans spent about $350,000, all of it on the corruption investigation that led to convictions of House Speaker John Perzel and others for using millions in tax dollars to aid Republican legislative campaigns.
The Senate’s total of about $2.2 million was not broken down between the parties in the hundreds of pages of billing records.
Among those named were witnesses and others involved in the case against former Republican Sen. Jane Clare Orie, former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and their sister, former Melvin aide Janine Orie. The sisters were convicted of misusing government resources for campaign purposes.
On the Senate Democratic side, some legal fees were connected to investigations that led to former Sen. Bob Mellow’s guilty plea to mail fraud for having staff work on campaigns and for filing a fraudulent tax return.
Most of the attorneys willing to talk about representing state lawmakers and staff did not want to go into detail.
“If the reason they’re being called is solely for their employment, it’s appropriate for their employer to pay their legal fees to a point,” said Moosic attorney Christopher Patrick Caputo. “It assists the truth-telling process of any sort of investigation or grand jury.”
Bill Costopoulos, who has represented people in the legislative branch, including former House Speaker Bill DeWeese in the scandal known as Bonusgate, said it makes sense for the public to pick up the cost of representing people who may only be witnesses.
“A lot of these people that get subpoenaed don’t know anything,” Costopoulos said. “And you might say, ‘Well, why do they even need a lawyer if they don’t know anything?’ Well, because they kind of freak out when they get subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Harrisburg or Scranton.”
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