Perzel's going away
— Convicted felon John Perzel, the one-time popular political powerhouse from the Great Northeast, is heading to prison.
Joe Ashdale, a veteran local labor union official, had a chance last week to speak as a character witness at the sentencing hearing of his longtime friend John Perzel.
Ashdale and Perzel, Mayfair natives, have known each other for about 40 years.
Perzel was the maitre d’ at Pavio’s Restaurant in Somerton, and Ashdale was one of his employees. Perzel would go on to serve 32 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, including stints as majority leader and speaker.
That all started to come crumbling down in November 2009, when a state grand jury recommended that he be charged with using public funds for election purposes. The charges were serious enough that he lost a re-election bid in November 2010.
Perzel pleaded guilty last August to eight of the 82 counts against him.
On March 21, he was in front of Dauphin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard A. Lewis to hear his sentence.
In his remarks to the court and in a letter, Ashdale outlined the assistance Perzel gave the community, the city and the state.
The union leader asked for mercy, describing Perzel as a good husband and father who is continuing to help the community in his consulting role with a developer looking to build on the former Liddonfield Homes housing project.
“I just said what a good man he was. He always had an open door. He was a leader. He got a lot of things done,” Ashdale said.
Before sentencing, Perzel told the court he had embarrassed himself, his family and friends and the people of Pennsylvania. He apologized for the disgrace brought by his actions, especially after having risen to a leadership role.
Lewis sentenced the 62-year-old former lawmaker from Lexington Park to two and a half to five years in prison, fined him $30,000 and ordered him to pay $1 million in restitution.
Perzel must report to prison on April 11. It has not been determined where he will serve the sentence.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz served 15 years in the House with Perzel. Though a Democrat, Butkovitz sided with Perzel and Republicans on certain issues.
“Perzel was a tremendous asset to the community,” he said. “It’s really tragic that he was enmeshed in this. I hope for the best for him and his family, and that he comes through this.”
City Councilman Brian O’Neill (R-10th dist.) said Perzel helped fund initiatives in the 10th Councilmanic District. He described Perzel as “generous, caring and hard working.”
O’Neill said Perzel was always a presence in Harrisburg and his district, adding that his fall is both sad and a tragedy.
“Take this away, and he was the complete public servant,” he said.
Joe DeFelice served as a summer intern, legislative aide and 64th Ward committeeman under Perzel. Today, he is president of the Mayfair Civic Association and the newly named chairman of the Mayfair Community Development Corporation.
The two grew apart a little as DeFelice joined a group of reform Republicans and Perzel stayed with the old guard.
“John has done a lot for our neighborhood. We wish him well,” DeFelice said.
A graduate of St. Matthew Elementary School and Abraham Lincoln High School, Perzel ousted Democratic Rep. Francis Gleeson in the 172nd Legislative District in 1978. He generally won re-election with ease, though Tina Tartaglione gave him a tough race in 1992.
In 1994, Republicans ended election night with a 102-101 disadvantage. Perzel convinced a Democratic representative to switch parties, giving the GOP control.
Rep. Matt Ryan, of Delaware County, became speaker, and Perzel served as majority leader, raising tons of money to keep Republicans in power for the next 12 years.
In 2000, Perzel needed a strong showing in absentee ballots to defeat Democratic challenger Mark Chilutti by 92 votes.
According to the grand jury, that close call led Perzel to start to rely heavily on sophisticated technology to win elections for him and other Republicans.
The grand jury’s report said Perzel used public funds and House staffers for campaigns.
When Ryan died in 2003, Perzel replaced him as speaker.
Local schools, hospitals, athletic associations and other benefited by having him in command.
The Mayfair Community Development Corporation built a giant community center in 2006 and named it in honor of Perzel. After the guilty plea, his named was removed from the outside of the building.
Republicans enjoyed a 110-93 advantage in 2005, but Perzel made a key miscalculation by supporting a legislative pay raise that was approved in the middle of the night.
Though Democrats also supported the increase and then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed it into law, voters in 2006 punished Republicans. Democrats took a 102-101 advantage.
Perzel convinced a few Democrats to vote to keep him as speaker, but a handful of anti-Perzel Republicans joined Democrats to elect Denny O’Brien as speaker.
Democrats maintained control in 2008, and Perzel lost a bid for minority leader. He served his final term pushing for additional police officers and elimination of property taxes for senior citizens, but did not have the power to get those issues to pass.
In all, 10 people were indicted in what some dubbed “Computergate.”
Former Rep. Brett Feese and an aide, Jill Seaman, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.
Brian Preski, a lawyer from Bustleton and Perzel’s former chief of staff, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two to four years in prison.
Eric Ruth, Al Bowman, Paul Towhey, Buzz Stokes and Don McClintock all received probation and fines following guilty pleas.
Charges were dropped against John Zimmerman. ••