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Scandal a familiar face in the hustings

Politics and misdeeds are long acquainted

Sunday, March 14, 1999

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1850, a prominent street preacher named Joe Barker who railed against Catholics, Masons and politicians was elected mayor of Pittsburgh. Even as the votes were being tallied, Barker was in a jail cell, stewing over a yearlong sentence for inciting a riot, obstructing the streets and using foul language.

R. Budd Dwyer, left, committed suicide after being convicted in a scandal while Dwyer was state treasurer. Robert Asher, right, former state Republican Party chairman, continued in politics after a conviction and seven months in federal prison stemming from the same scandal. (Post-Gazette) 

A horde of supporters demanded Barker's release and triumphantly carried him on their shoulders to the mayor's office.

Barker's tenure wasn't long. Elections rolled around a year later, and the convict mayor returned to his roots as soap-box orator, sinking ever deeper into a pattern of foul-mouthed, drunken harangues. Perhaps the public could not ignore the fact that Barker set up a private rival police force or that he was arrested in the aftermath of a fracas involving the two groups.

Certainly, no Pennsylvania politician since has enjoyed a grander, more unusual entrance into public office. But as exits go, Barker's was about average.

For at least the past 150 years, politics and scandal have gone hand in hand in the commonwealth. Sometimes, as in Barker's case, scandal plays a role in ending a political career, but it has not always been the final nail in the coffin.

On the national level, President Clinton is a paragon of political survival despite scandal. And closer to home, Pennsylvania has its own set of comeback kids.

In the past few years, a handful of high-profile political figures have managed to rebound from controversy and reinvent themselves in a way that Barker never could. Considering their connections, it's not surprising they've been successful at drumming up support.

"What's important in Pennsylvania is name recognition more than anything else. It's not so much what you've done or not done. It's whether we know your name. And when confronted on a ballot with a recognizable name, even with a scoundrel, we're much more likely to support that individual over someone we've never heard about," said Jon Delano, a Democrat and political analyst in Pittsburgh. "That's what allows for political comebacks."

Leon Abramovitz, a local Republican strategist and consultant, has a similar take on the process of political rehabilitation.

"Pennsylvania has a very good tradition of loving the rogue. Basically, as long as the rogue takes care of us, or we perceive that he or she does, then everything's fine," Abramovitz said. "If you've paid your debt to society, if you've done your time, are you supposed to be consigned to the depths after that? Or do we believe in rehabilitation?"

Of course, reversing a fall from grace is not always possible or even attempted, hardly a jaw-dropper considering the list of offenses that have been racked up in the name of public service. Political offices in Pennsylvania have housed not only mayors, councilmen, attorneys general, auditors general and treasurers, but also convicted bribers, tax cheats, riot inciters, racketeers, extortionists, perjurers and perpetrators of mail fraud.

They've done time, paid fines, suffered humiliation and worse. And even those who have been found innocent or portrayed as hapless victims have had to endure a media spotlight that has publicized accusations and innuendoes.

Most prominent among the locals who have done well at weathering controversy is Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, forensic pathologist to the stars, who has garnered a stream of endorsements in his bid for the newly created post of county executive.

Wecht - brilliant, omnipresent and keen as a scalpel, especially when provoked - found himself battling accusations of wrongdoing when he was charged in September 1980 with six criminal offenses after a 13-month grand jury investigation. He had been coroner then for 10 years and went on to one term as a county commissioner.

Wecht was charged with enlisting morgue employees between 1974 and 1979 to use county equipment during the workday to perform more than $100,000 worth of tissue tests for his private laboratory.

By the time of his highly publicized trial, which generated plenty of front-page fireworks, five of the charges had been dismissed. A jury acquitted Wecht on the final felony count, theft of services.

Although his trial troubles were over, Wecht faced a civil suit by the county that contended he owed money for out-of-town and private autopsies. After a lengthy legal battle, Wecht paid $200,000 in a 1993 settlement.

By then, Wecht had been out of elected office for a decade. In 1983, he lost a re-election bid for commissioner. And the next year, he failed to capture the chairmanship of the county Democratic Committee.

But Wecht returned to public office in 1996 when he was elected coroner, a springboard to his run for county executive.

"Some people thought that would never have been possible," Delano said. "He is a genuine celebrity. I think he has created an image that goes well beyond politics, and that has really resurrected his political presence."

Looking back on it, Wecht said there was nothing magical about his survival. "I just did my work and continued to be myself," he said.

Wecht said he was fortified by his belief that he had done nothing wrong. He said his family and friends stood by him, as did his professional colleagues.

"By that I mean physicians, attorneys and so on. They felt they knew me. They felt they knew enough about me, in terms of my honesty, integrity and professional competencies, to have realized that there was no basis to the charges," he said.

In a March 1995 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wecht indicated that even he did not foresee a political comeback.

"My political days are behind me," he said.

Was former city Councilman Ben Woods thinking of a comeback in May when he was elected Democratic chairman of the city's 27th Ward, where he originally began his political career, five years after being released from a halfway house?

Woods has remained mum on the subject of political aspirations, but it's clear that regardless of what the future holds, he's managed an impressive feat in getting back to where he started.

It didn't take long for the brash 6-foot, 3-inch Woods to make his mark after being elected to City Council in 1981. One of his first moves was to commandeer a capacious conference room as his own office without asking permission. In 1985, he had no trouble finding a rebuttal to Councilwoman Michelle Madoff's characterization of him as a wimp. "If you were a man," Woods told her, "I'd show you who's a wimp."

Madoff got her revenge. Her September 1986 tip to the FBI launched an investigation that brought Woods down. Ultimately, it didn't matter how tough the one-time sheet metal apprentice was; the law eventually bested him. In November 1989, he was found guilty in federal court of 17 counts of extortion, racketeering, conspiracy and tax evasion.

Although sentenced in 1990 to eight years in prison, Woods emerged in 1993 from a halfway house, and the path back to politics beckoned.

Like Woods, Robert Asher, a former state Republican Party chairman, was caught up in a major scandal, served time in prison and squeezed victory out of defeat. In November, Asher was named one of two Republican National Committee members from Pennsylvania.

Asher, who runs his family's Montgomery County candy business, aided Gov. Ridge in the gubernatorial race that won him his first term.

Ridge seemed to have no qualms about reaching out to his old friend, Asher, who was found guilty in 1986 of conspiracy to commit bribery, perjury, mail fraud, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. He was sentenced to a year and a day in jail and fined $205,000. He served seven months in federal prison.

"We find him to be a very productive public citizen," Mark Holman, Ridge's campaign manager, said in 1993. "He's very active in his church, his community, and he's a fine businessman. It's unfortunate the trouble he went through, but what's past is past with Bob, as far as we're concerned."

While Asher repaired his reputation, the man who was convicted along with him never gave himself the chance. R. Budd Dwyer's story represents the opposite end of the spectrum from Asher's and illustrates the profound damage that can be wrought by scandal.

Dwyer was the state's 66th treasurer. In December 1986, he was convicted on five counts of mail fraud, four counts of interstate transportation in aid of racketeering, one count of perjury and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery.

During his four-week trial, two officials of Computer Technology Associates, a Newport Beach, Calif., company, testified that Dwyer agreed in 1984 to provide them with a $4.6 million, no-bid contract in exchange for a $300,000 payoff in the form of campaign contributions to Dwyer and the State Republican Committee. No money was ever exchanged.

On the day before he was to be sentenced to up to 55 years in jail in January 1987, Dwyer held a news conference in Harrisburg on the Capitol grounds. There, he rambled for 25 minutes and then pulled a .357-caliber Magnum revolver from a manila envelope, put the muzzle into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

At the time, many of Dwyer's friends said they believed Dwyer would have become a governor if not for the so-called CTA scandal.

Death also came quickly to Pittsburgh Mayor Charles H. Kline, albeit not violently, at the end of the colorful corruption saga that enveloped his tenure in the early 1930s.

Kline, a Republican, made a mistake that has gone down in the history books by paying $1,950 in 1931 for an 18-foot by 20-foot Oriental rug for his office without following proper municipal bidding procedures.

The carpet scandal exploded. In June 1931, Kline and the city's director of supplies were indicted on 45 counts of making illegal purchases for the city. It was the beginning of the end for the flamboyant Kline, a dapper gent who posed for the cameras in the company of Charles Lindbergh and who was ferried about town in a monogrammed limousine.

Ultimately, the rug did in Kline only in the court of public opinion. He was actually convicted of a single count of illegally buying three trucks for the city as part of a kickback scheme.

With a 13-word resignation statement, Kline stepped down from his position in March 1933 as part of a deal to avoid a six-month jail sentence. He died four months later at age 62.

Between rebirth and death there lies a middle ground in politics, which is to simply walk away. Robert N. Peirce Jr. did just that. Now an attorney who has made a name for himself for winning property assessments reductions, Peirce became linked with a scandalous episode in 1973.

He was clerk of courts then, and his reforms had made life difficult for some bail bondsmen. One of them decided to have his revenge. He pressured a young, attractive Florida woman, an occasional drug user and client of Peirce's, to entice Peirce into a motel. Someone burst in and snapped photos of the two in bed for use in a blackmail scheme.

By the time indictments were unsealed in the case, Peirce was a minority Republican county commissioner. He lost a re-election attempt in 1979. Some say the political winds had shifted against the GOP, but others, like Abramovitz, believe the fact he was found in a compromising position killed his chances.

"I ran for election and lost. Who knows why I lost. I lost because people lose elections. I have not tried a political comeback," Peirce said earlier this week. "Basically, I ran, I won, I ran again, I lost. I accepted it. There's a wonderful life outside of politics, and I'm enjoying it. One of the things I'm enjoying is not having my name mentioned in the newspaper."

Former Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr. also walked away from politics after his conviction and doesn't think about returning. In 1995, he resigned his post and was sentenced to 14 months in jail for illegally accepting $20,000 in cash contributions from video poker operators and filing inaccurate campaign expense reports to cover them up.

Despite his experience, Preate said he had not hesitated to encourage his twin 28-year-old daughters to expose themselves to politics. One worked for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and the other is helping manage the campaign for Samuel Katz, a Republican mayoral candidate in Philadelphia.

These days, Preate is working as a legal aide in his family's Scranton law firm, Levy & Preate.

"I just keep saying to the people of Pennsylvania that I'm sorry for what I did. I paid a very severe penalty, I believe, went to jail, lost my law license, lost my father. He died the day I signed my plea agreement. I'm still paying my legal bills," Preate said in an interview.

"It's very hard. I just hope that somewhere along the line, I can make it up to the people of Pennsylvania in some way, shape or form."

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