Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gubernatorial candidate Corbett plays anti-corruption card

NOTE: The Tribune-Review profiled Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Onorato on Monday.

The parallels are hard to escape.

In 1978, Republican nominee Richard Thornburgh, a crusading federal prosecutor from Pittsburgh, rode a reputation for putting corrupt politicians in prison to the governor's mansion, beating a Pittsburgh Democrat along the way.

Three decades later, GOP hopeful Tom Corbett, a former federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh, is relying on a reputation for sending corrupt lawmakers and aides to prison to follow in Thornburgh's footsteps. He, too, needs to defeat a Pittsburgh Democrat -- Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

"I've walked in those shoes before," Thornburgh said of Corbett. "It is legitimate for him to call himself a reformer."

In the biggest public corruption probe in at least three decades, Corbett charged 25 state lawmakers, former lawmakers and staffers with public corruption during the past two years. His staff has tallied 3 convictions, 7 guilty pleas and 2 acquittals in the cases, most of which involve funneling public resources to political campaigns.

The list includes former House Whip Mike Veon, a powerful Beaver County Democrat serving a prison sentence.

The 13 defendants awaiting trial include two former House speakers, Democrat Bill DeWeese of Greene County and Republican John Perzel of Philadelphia. Ten of those awaiting trial are Republicans.

Attorney Mark Schwartz, an aide in the 1970s to then-House Speaker K. LeRoy Irvis, an Oakland Democrat, said it's eerie how Corbett mirrors Thornburgh.

"He probably has been a little more even-handed going after Republicans as well as Democrats," Schwartz said. "But this is the Thornburgh playbook, right down to the press conferences."

Corbett spent two decades of his 34-year legal career as a prosecutor.

"If you want to understand me, understand that I'm a U.S. attorney. And we do things the same way," Corbett said. "Harrisburg hasn't figured it out yet."

He said he never patterned himself after Thornburgh, a U.S. attorney who served as attorney general of the United States during the Reagan administration after two terms as governor.

"I sat at (Thornburgh's) desk; his desk was my desk. I have a picture where I'm with him when he was attorney general after I was sworn in," Corbett said.

Both men pay homage to Elsie Hillman of Squirrel Hill, the grand dame of Pittsburgh Republicans.

"I just recognized honest people who are committed to public service," Hillman said. "It's luck to find people like this."

Thornburgh said Hillman was first to call him about his likely appointment in 1969 as U.S attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Corbett said Hillman tapped him to run the elder George Bush's 1988 presidential effort in Western Pennsylvania. A year later, Bush appointed Corbett as U.S. attorney here.

Back then, Duquesne University law professor Joe Mistick was chief of staff to Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff, a Democrat. He remembers the day a receptionist alerted him that Corbett was waiting to see him.

"He hadn't called. He just walked across town. ... I steeled myself. I wondered who had done what wrong," Mistick said.

Corbett told Mistick the Justice Department had money for cities to tackle drugs and rebuild communities. The resulting partnership -- Pittsburgh's Weed and Seed program -- became a model for the nation.

Corbett's post as state attorney general has been a waiting room for aspiring Republicans, who have held the job since it became an elective office in 1981. At least two other gubernatorial hopefuls began campaigns from there.

Corbett oversees 800 employees in the Attorney General's Office. A former employee's whistleblower lawsuit against Corbett, alleging improprieties in the office, is pending.

Former Senior Deputy Attorney General Thomas Kimmett claims he was fired for bringing evidence of improprieties in the Financial Enforcement Section to his superiors. The lawsuit, scheduled for trial this year, claims collection companies were paid richly for work the attorney general's staff did.

"I find it hard to believe no one mentioned to Tom Corbett the types of things that were being done," said Charles Kimmett, a Washington lawyer who is representing his uncle in the suit.

Corbett declined to comment on the litigation.

In court filings, Corbett said he delegated decisions about day-to-day personnel matters to supervisors. He said Kimmett was fired Nov. 21, 2008, after the former prosecutor filed a lengthy objection to a plan to address deficiencies in his performance review.

Other former employees are more complimentary. North Carolina lawyer Bill Conley, who worked with Corbett in the state and federal prosecutor's offices, said Corbett is a good listener, solicits ideas, encourages debate and then delegates.

Conley said Corbett was well-grounded, down-to-earth. "I think he still lives in the same house he grew up in," Conley said.


He's married to his college sweetheart, Susan Manbeck Corbett. She left Western Pennsylvania four years ago to become vice president of the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the historic battlefield and its museums.

Until recently, her boss was Robert Wilburn, former Thornburgh budget secretary.

Despite their life in Central Pennsylvania, the Corbetts maintain the Shaler home where he grew up and the couple raised their children.

Corbett sampled corporate America as a lobbyist for garbage giant Waste Management before his 2004 campaign for attorney general.

He won that race by a razor thin margin but amassed the biggest GOP win in the state in his 2008 re-election.

Earlier this year, Corbett joined 13 other state attorneys general -- 12 of them Republicans -- in a lawsuit to halt the federal health care overhaul touted by President Obama and Democrats.

Lawyers, insurance executives, energy company officials and GOP stalwarts were among those who came through with $8.5 million for Corbett's GOP primary this year.

Corbett wants to ban political contributions and gifts from those seeking state work. But he chafes at caps on campaign contributions.

"It really comes down to a free speech issue," he said.

Corbett said publicly reported campaign contributions serve the public's interest, not laws regulating how much anyone can give.

In 2004, a court ordered a Republican campaign organization to disclose who provided $450,000 it funneled to Corbett's campaign. The ruling eventually identified Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon as the donor. Earlier this year, news reports identified a Boca Raton housewife who contributed $180,000 to Corbett's gubernatorial campaign as the spouse of another energy executive, East Resources CEO Terry Pegula.

Asked about those donations, Corbett said the news media detailed the contributions and identified the donors. He said such contributions do not influence him.

Corbett has said he supports responsible regulations on gas drillers, but he opposes Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's moratorium on leasing state lands for drilling and a proposed gas extraction tax.

In a TV interview in the spring, Corbett said his no-new-taxes pledge included a ban on fees. More recently, he pointed to the language of the pledge, noting it does not include fees.

The candidate mined a few long-time GOP favorites for his campaign: pledges to advocate for school choice scholarships and privatizing the state's liquor stores.

Corbett's other reform proposals include: reducing the size and cost of state government by 10 percent; putting expenditures online; eliminating lawmakers' discretionary grants commonly known as walking-around-money; capping legislative leadership funds; ending legislative per diems; and establishing two-year state budgets.

Patrick Thomassey, a prominent Pittsburgh defense attorney sworn in with Corbett as an Allegheny County assistant district attorney in 1976, said Corbett's "people skills" ensure he'll stay in touch with voters.

"When we were young prosecutors, he could talk to the vice president of U.S. Steel or the guy who was digging ditches on the pipeline," Thomassey recalled.

"Tom has his finger on the pulse of the community. He's a realist. We need someone who can temper what the people want with what's realistic. I think Tom can do that. And I'm a Democrat."

By Debra Erdley

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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