Former Gov. Ed Rendell is an interesting choice as a character witness

The revelation came like a bolt of lightening after Tuesday's paper landed on the porch. The late great Watergate figures John Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman may not have had to do 11/2 years in prison, each.

They should have had their defense team make sure to screen anybody who ever read a newspaper out of the jury pool, and then call the late great former President Richard Nixon, under whom they had served so loyally, as a character witness.

According to a story in The Morning Call on Tuesday, that last part is something like what former Pennsylvania Revenue Secretary Stephen Stetler did during his trial in Dauphin County. He called former Gov. Ed Rendell, under whom he served so loyally, as a character witness.

Now, that takes chutzpah.

Rendell, it was reported, testified that Stetler's reputation is "as good as anyone could ever hope to have." The story did not mention the long succession of hits to Rendell's reputation that were featured in newspaper stories during his administration, which ended in January of last year.

Stetler went on trial on charges of theft, conspiracy and conflict of interest concerning allegations that he had state employees routinely do election campaign work. The defendant, the story noted, was Rendell's revenue secretary "for about 11 months until he resigned just hours before he was charged in 2009."

It was one of the cases in a widespread corruption investigation known as "Bonusgate," in which Pennsylvania taxpayers were forced to pay the salaries and bonuses of state staff members who worked on political election campaigns. In a rare example of such prosecutions brought at the state (instead of federal) level, some top lawmakers are now in prison.

The case went to the jury on Tuesday and I did not hear of a verdict by my deadline time, but I bet Stetler beat the rap. I could not imagine his lawyers allowing any jury member who ever read a newspaper, in view of what happened to Erlichman, Haldeman and other such figures.

Happily for Stetler, jurors must not be aware of a few of the glitches concerning his star character witness. They probably never saw news reports that Rendell, as governor, signed legislation to create Pennsylvania's vast new network of gambling casinos, even though Rendell is a lawyer and any child who can read could see that the legislation was blatantly unconstitutional.

The measure was nevertheless passed by the Legislature, signed by Rendell and upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after the gambling industry invested millions of dollars in so-called "political campaign contributions" in the state.

On the other hand, Rendell vetoed some legislation, notably a measure (since enacted) to reform the "joint and several" concept, which let unscrupulous lawyers get rich by filing frivolous lawsuits. Similarly, the veto came after heavy "campaign contributions" by lawyers.

Meanwhile, Rendell rewarded his own campaign worker, Joe Brimmeier, with a $187,639 job at the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was a far bigger salary than that paid to the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, who has responsibilities 75 times as heavy as anybody with the Turnpike Commission.

Brimmeier's qualifications for the hifalutin Turnpike job? He once ran (unsuccessfully) for county prothonotary.

Speaking of the Turnpike, Rendell once cooked up a scheme to sell it to a commercial outfit and said the state needed legal advice for the deal (which, fortunately, never happened). So he arranged for taxpayers to pay $1.8 million for the legal work to the Ballard Spahr Ingersoll & Andrews law firm of Philadelphia.

Ballard Spahr, incidentally, was where Rendell worked before going into politics.

That $1.8 million was only part of the $111 million in legal work that Rendell steered to outside commercial law firms, despite the fact that Harrisburg is awash with lawyers already on the state payroll.

One law firm, in Houston, was hired by Rendell to represent the state in a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company. It seems he went all the way to Texas to find a lawyer after the law firm's founding partner gave him a big "campaign contribution."

Other big "campaign contributions" from a company in Minnesota preceded Rendell's actions to develop high school examinations. A $201 million state contract to draw up the tests went to — you guessed it — a very lucky company in Minnesota.

Rendell has had some good luck of his own. After he and other key state politicians rammed through the gambling casino legislation, and after they arranged for a provision in the law to let casinos legally rig slot machines, they visited some casinos and had fantastic luck playing the slots.

In Rendell's case, casino bosses in Chester steered him to a particular machine and he hit a $2,000 jackpot on his third spin.

In March 2008, when all these good things were happening to Rendell and his former law firm, I sarcastically expressed the hope that when his term as governor ended at the end of 2010, "the law firm finds a way to show its gratitude."

If you Google the Ballard Spahr law firm's website, check out who its new full partner (and expert witness on integrity) is.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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