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Pressure builds on Rep. Frank Serafini to resign

Sunday, December 19, 1999

Peter Durantine,

HARRISBURG -- When Republican state Rep. Frank Serafini was indicted last year for lying to a federal grand jury, House Democrats, struggling the past four years against a Republican tide that has left them almost powerless, had an opportunity to score some political points.

But the lead Democrat, House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese of Waynesburg, Greene County, refused to criticize the Lackawanna County Republican with whom he had shared adventures.

Serafini, DeWeese said, was one of only two House members to accept his invitation to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak.

Serafini also bicycled with DeWeese across Italy several years ago.

For the past month, though, DeWeese has taken off the gloves.

In August, Serafini was convicted of committing perjury when he denied to a federal grand jury that he was illegally reimbursed by his family's landfill company for $2,000 in contributions made to then-GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Since last month, when he was sentenced to five months in prison, DeWeese has led the charge to have him expelled from the House.

The state Constitution says a legislator convicted of perjury must be expelled, DeWeese argues. Democrats have made repeated attempts on the House floor to have him expelled. Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher has weighed in on the side of the Democrats.

Serafini denies any wrongdoing and wants to keep his seat until his appeals are complete. The political battle has been heated and the stakes enormous inside the Capitol.

If Serafini loses his seat and the Democrats win his district, they will be one vote away from securing a majority in the 203-member House.

Still, DeWeese has a hard time blasting Serafini.

"He's a hell of a guy. Everybody knows that," DeWeese said recently.

Fisher has given Serafini until noon tomorrow to resign or face court action.

As of Friday afternoon, Serafini wasn't tipping his hand, but several of his colleagues said they expected him to ignore Fisher. Serafini insists he is innocent. He wants to keep his House seat until his appeals are heard.

A handful of Democrats joined the GOP majority to support Serafini in his bid, including Rep. Frank Gigliotti, D-Brookline, who was indicted on federal bribery charges Friday.

Rep. Italo Cappabianca, D-Erie, the third man on the Kilimanjaro climb, has known Serafini since 1978, when both were elected to the House. He also voted against DeWeese's effort.

"I thought he was a Democrat when I first met him," Cappabianca said.

A fellow Italian-American, Cappabianca also went on the bicycle trip with DeWeese and Serafini.

At the time of the Kilimanjaro ascent, all three men were bachelors and traveling a lot together, Cappabianca said. All three married late in life, and 54-year-old Serafini's wife is expecting their first child.

"I know that he did not do what this jury thinks he did," Cappabianca said.

Serafini grew up in Scranton, where he went to the University of Scranton, graduating with an accounting degree. He earned a master's degree in finance at Bucknell University and is the author of "Reflecting General Price Level Adjustments in Financial Statements."

Cappabianca and other House members who are friends of Serafini's describe him as a friendly, caring person who doesn't chase the spotlight.

"He's a very charitable person, always willing to help others without fanfare," said Rep. Tom Tigue, D-Luzerne, who met Serafini in 1980 and testified on his behalf at Serafini's sentencing hearing last month.

Cappabianca said he had seen Serafini pay other people's mortgages and make their car payments to help them out in financial hard times.

"He's an unbelievable guy," Cappabianca said. "He's the type of guy that literally would give you the shirt off his back."

Friends say Serafini is bright and accessible to his constituents.

"That's why he keeps getting re-elected," Tigue said.

Though he remains a friend to DeWeese, Cappabianca disagrees with DeWeese's push to have Serafini removed. He said that drawing Fisher into the controversy "has now complicated the matter."

Cappabianca said Serafini could, if he chose, resign in January or any time thereafter, just not tomorrow, when Fisher ordered.

"He has to ignore it," Cappabianca said. "The sovereignty of the House is at stake. Fisher has overstepped his bounds."

And, Cappabianca said, DeWeese also must fight Fisher because the Legislature is a co-equal, and therefore self-governing, branch of the government.

"He also has an obligation to defend the House," Cappabianca said.

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