Lawmaker gets house arrest, keeps pension, in corruption plea deal; used staff for campaign

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NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania — A Pennsylvania lawmaker will avoid jail time and keep her pension despite admitting in a felony plea that she used her taxpayer-funded staff for campaign fundraising.

Sen. Leanna Washington will spend three months of house arrest during five years of probation. She must also pay $200,000 in restitution to the state Senate as a result of Thursday's negotiated plea.

The plea deal dropped a theft-of-services count that would have cost Washington her pension and, in exchange, Washington agreed to provide information on unspecified investigations, prosecutors said.

The 69-year-old Democrat, who had lost a re-election bid in May, will resign her Philadelphia-area seat effective Friday. She acknowledged afterward that she had her staff, working on state time, plan her annual "birthday party" fundraisers.

A Montgomery County judge accepted her plea but said he didn't necessarily agree with it. He noted that more than a dozen Pennsylvania lawmakers have been convicted in corruption probes over the past decade, and yet the "drumbeat" of "hubris" continues.

"Sadly, the list is getting longer," Common Pleas Judge Steven T. O'Neill said. "Everyone just assumes that state-paid workers ought to be used in other (restricted) activities."

He told Washington — a high school dropout who later managed public housing, earned a degree and entered politics — that her conviction now "obscures your great work."

The March indictment accused her of pressuring staff to plan elaborate annual "birthday party" fundraisers each July. They spent weeks compiling guest lists stocked with political heavyweights, making and sending out invitations and collecting money that ultimately went to her campaign, the state Attorney General's Office charged. Her staff also used state equipment for the work. At least one aide who complained was fired.

"I recognize the use of Senate resources ... (for) the birthday parties was a violation of state law," Washington said after the hearing, reading from prepared remarks as she stood beside lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. and several supporters. "It's been a great honor to fight for the needs and the future of this region."

Washington could follow other lawmakers who took their pension in a lump sum to pay legal fees and restitution, he said. The value of her pension wasn't immediately clear.

"The clear message here is that crime pays," said Eric Epstein, a coordinator of Rock the Capital, a nonpartisan, government watchdog group based in Harrisburg. "Where else but Pennsylvania can you get rewarded for breaking the law?"

The $200,000 in restitution includes $100,000 in investigative costs and the treble damages allowed by law of the approximately $33,000 in stolen staff time.

Other Pennsylvania lawmakers convicted in recent years include former Senate leaders Vincent Fumo and Robert Mellow and former House Speakers Bill DeWeese and John Perzel.

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