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Corruption trial opens for ex-Rep. Stetler

Peter Jackson

What may be the last trial in a more than five-year state investigation of legislative corruption got under way Monday as lawyers' opening statements covered well-worn legal territory _ allegations that taxpayer-funded employees and resources were illegally diverted to political campaigns.

The probe has led to the convictions of 21 former lawmakers and aides.

On trial is former Rep. Stephen Stetler, 62, who chaired the House Democratic Policy Committee, a legislative leadership position, and the House Democratic Campaign Committee, an organization that raises outside money to help elect more Democrats to the Legislature, from 2002 to 2006.

Erin Grace, the first prosecution witness, testified that she was hired by the campaign committee as a fundraiser in early 2004 and that she continued that fundraising after Stetler placed her on the legislative payroll as a legislative analyst on his staff following that year's elections.

"That was the job as it was presented to me," said Grace, who testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution.

The state attorney general's office alleges Stetler, who represented a York County House district for 16 years, illegally used public employees and other resources for political and personal purposes between 2004 and 2006. Stetler has pleaded not guilty to four counts of theft and one count each of conspiracy and conflict of interest.

Lead prosecutor Mike Sprow, a senior deputy attorney general, said public servants are supposed to use their time, energy and talent for their constituents' benefits, but "this defendant used the public to benefit himself and his party."

"This is not a complicated case," Sprow told the jury.

The defense portrayed Stetler as an honest, civic-minded man who was reluctantly elected to House leadership by other House Democrats who were dissatisfied with the leadership of Bill DeWeese and Mike Veon. Both DeWeese, the former Democratic leader from Greene County, and Veon, the former Democrat whip from Beaver County, are currently serving prison terms for corruption.

Stetler's lawyer, Joshua Lock, advised the jurors that simply associating his client with DeWeese and Veon was not grounds for a conviction.

Lock disputed Sprow's charge that legislative employees claim fictitious "comp time" _ compensatory time off _ to justify doing political work on state time.

Most employees take the ban on mixing politics and public service seriously, Lock said. They keep records of the overtime hours that the Legislature's often-erratic schedule forces them to put in, so they can use that time as they please, whether it be for political campaigns or recreation, he said.

"Work when there's work to do; when there's not work, you don't have to," he said.

Stelter also served as state revenue secretary for about a year in then-Gov. Ed Rendell's administration after leaving the Legislature.

The attorney general's office says its investigation is ongoing, but Stetler is the last to stand trial of the 25 people who were charged.

Twelve Democrats and nine Republicans have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Two defendants were acquitted, and charges against a third were dropped.

The Associated Press