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Editorial: Ridge on Serafini

The governor has to be for him or against him

Friday, January 14, 2000

Tom Ridge wants to be vice president? Then let him look presidential. That means putting principle above party and making tough choices. Like calling for the resignation of state Rep. Frank Serafini.

The Republican lawmaker from Lackawanna County was convicted of perjury in federal court last year. That's a crime that the Pennsylvania Constitution says bars him from serving in the General Assembly.

Yet Mr. Serafini refuses to give up his seat, saying he'll wait till he has exhausted his appeals. That's not fair to his 57,000 constituents, whose representative - in House business and in moral leadership - is damaged goods. And it won't be fair to Republican House members who go down in elections later this year because of the Serafini fiasco.

To make matters worse, House Republican leaders are shielding Mr. Serafini to preserve their slim, 103-100, advantage in the chamber. They say the courts cannot purge him from office, yet they refuse to allow the House - the arm of government that can - to vote on his possible expulsion.

House Speaker Matthew Ryan and House Majority Leader John Perzel, both Republicans, act as if this is an unprecedented case. Or, as if the Legislature has always waited for a politician's conviction to wind its way through the courts before he give up his keys to the government.

Yet history shows that six House members since 1975 have been found guilty while in office. All six either resigned or were expelled after the initial verdict or after sentencing.

The Serafini case is way past that point, yet the Republican leaders are dug in - in a dark and lonely political foxhole.

One Republican, state Attorney General Mike Fisher, has taken a principled stand and petitioned Commonwealth Court for Mr. Serafini's dismissal. But who is fighting that action besides the convicted felon's legal counsel? Why, House Republican lawyers.

This is not a good thing for the GOP, and Tom Ridge, the most popular Republican in Pennsylvania, is standing idly by. He issued a tepid statement last month that Frank Serafini should consider "whether resignation at this point is the most appropriate course." But House leaders and House members were not moved by such rhetorical mush. More recently, he has refused to call the General Assembly into special session to deal with the matter.

Gov. Ridge, as the titular head of his party in Pennsylvania, needs to purge its ranks of those who would do it - not to mention the commonwealth's people - a gross disservice. He needs to use the weight of his office to persuade Frank Serafini that stepping down, before the House resumes its work in earnest, is the right thing to do.

If not, then Tom Ridge, the foe of crime and the scourge of criminals, will be a defender of a convicted felon. That won't play well on the convention floor.

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