"What's black and white and read all over?"

Thursday, April 20, 2006
Posted 9:29 PM by

Who will the feds snare?

A Pennsylvania lobbyist who embezzled to feed his gambling habit may have cut a deal to wear a wire for federal prosecutors.I didn't miss the Associated Press article that ran yesterday about well-connected lobbyist John J. O'Connell pleading guilty to mail fraud after allegedly stealing money from Pennsylvania Law Watch, the medical malpractice tort-reform group he headed.

But the article didn't say why a guy who admitted embezzling "thousands of dollars" - reportedly $160,000 - to pay off his illegal sports gambling debts didn't get charged with theft.

I was intrigued, but set it aside for further investigation, preferring instead to focus on state Rep. John Perzel's laughable attempt at a lobbyist disclosure bill. Now I'm almost sorry I did.

This morning's Philadelphia Inquirer offered a more complete story that explained O'Connell's plea deal was in exchange for his willingness to serve as an informant for the feds.

O'Connell agreed in January to act in an "undercover capacity" and allow federal authorities to monitor and record conversations he had with people "believed to be engaged in criminal conduct," the Inquirer said.

On Monday, four months later, federal prosecutors filed the single felony count of mail fraud against him in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. O'Connell is expected to enter his plea April 27 before Judge William W. Caldwell, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

You can do the math. That's at least three months of O'Connell roaming the Capitol's halls - where he still lobbies for Motorola, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), Rent-A-Center, eBay and more - while wearing a wire.

Or as Inqy columnist/blogger Tom Ferrick put it, O'Connell could become "the Jack Abramoff of Harrisburg."

Kim Daniel, an assistant U.S. attorney, refused to discuss details of the case but said that language was a standard part of many such plea agreements.

I guess we'll know when the first indictments get handed down from a federal grand jury. Kind of puts Common Cause's federal lawsuit in a whole new light, doesn't it?

O'Connell spent more than $480,000 last year lobbying the state Senate on behalf of 21 clients, including nearly $87,800 for Penn National Gaming Inc., according to a registry of Senate lobbyists.

Penn National spent nearly $1 million lobbying the state Senate last year through 19 lobbyists, records show.

Pennsylvania's slot machine law prohibited potential parlor licensees and machine manufacturers from making campaign contributions after it was passed in 2004. However, it did not bar or even limit how much they could spend on lobbying.

A similar lobbyist registry for the executive branch does not list lobbying expenses, merely O'Connell's current 14 client's names. A complete list for the Legislature said O'Connell had as many as 37 clients last year.

O'Connell was very well connected. He worked as a member of the House Republican staff in 1993, served as a legislative liaison for the state Department of Transportation under former Gov. Tom Ridge in 1996, was a staffer for Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor in 1997, and worked in Ridge's re-election campaign in 1998.

He also is a friend and former aide to Perzel, Pennsylvania's speaker of the House.

Perzel didn't sound too worried about it, telling the Inqy, "He's been my friend and is still my friend. And I hope to support him later in life when this is all over."

Given how Perzel has watered down his proposed lobbyist disclosure bill, I think I know how he will support O'Connell.

Two other thoughts.

Doesn't it strike you as kind of funny that O'Connell had a problem with gambling at a time when 14 slot machine parlors are about to open up across the state thanks in large part to lobbyists like him.

Finally, how addicted do you have to be to bet on 13 baseball games in one day - the point at which O'Connell said he realized he had a problem? Football, I'd understand. But baseball? The only guy I've ever heard of doing that was Pete Rose.


  • Pennsylvania Senate lobbyists
  • Executive branch lobbyists (in accordance with Gov. Rendell's executive order.)
  • There is currently no registry of lobbyists for the House of Representatives.


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