HARRISBURG — Former state Rep. Bill DeWeese should be granted a new trial on corruption charges because a judge improperly limited the number of defense witnesses who testified, DeWeese’s attorney told a Superior Court panel Wednesday at a hearing on his appeal.
William Costopoulos said Dauphin County Judge Todd Hoover allowed him to question just eight witnesses about a directive in which DeWeese, a longtime floor leader of the House Democrats, cautioned caucus staff members to confine campaign activity to lunch hours, vacation days and other personal time.
The longtime Greene County lawmaker is a former Marine and “he believed that when a superior gave directives, those directives would be followed,” the lawyer told the three-judge panel.
But Hoover barred similar testimony by about 20 other potential defense witnesses on grounds that it would be “cumulative,” even though some of them were expected to contradict incriminating testimony by two former top DeWeese aides, Costopoulos said.
“This was my defense,” the lawyer said. “None of those witnesses was saying the same thing.”
DeWeese, 63, was convicted last year on five felony counts for illegally using public employees and resources for political purposes.
He is serving a 2 1/2- to five-year term at Retreat State Prison in northeastern Pennsylvania.
The star prosecution witnesses at DeWeese’s trial were Mike Manzo, DeWeese’s former chief of staff, and Kevin Sidella, a legislative aide who mainly handled his political fundraising.
They testified that the involvement of legislative employees in political campaigns had been rampant under DeWeese’s leadership in the years leading up to the state corruption probe launched in 2007.
Manzo pleaded guilty to reduced charges as part of a plea deal and was sentenced to 1 1/2 to four years in prison.
Sidella was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Amy Zapp said the subject of DeWeese’s directive surfaced 15 times during his trial.
“There’s no way, when you read the transcript, that (DeWeese) didn’t have his day in court,” she said.
Superior Court Judge Jack Panella suggested that limiting the number of defense witnesses might prevent jurors from hearing the one witness whose testimony could change the verdict.
“What right does the trial judge have to take over the trial tactics of the defense?” Panella asked.
Zapp said trial judges are entitled to impose “reasonable limits” on the number of witnesses who testify.
“There is no constitutional justification for allowing unlimited witnesses,” she said.
DeWeese’s appeal raises other issues, but Costopoulos chose to limit his oral argument to this particular one.
“You’ve got to pick your war and I picked the one I had the most tanks for,” he said after the hearing.
DeWeese served in the House for 35 years, including two as speaker. He was the only sitting legislator to stand trial among the 25 Democrats and Republicans connected to the House who were arrested in a state corruption investigation. Most of them were convicted.