The trial against a former top Democratic leader in the state House for misusing taxpayer dollars for political gain has begun.
Representative Bill DeWeese (D-Greene County) has been charged as part of the Bonusgate political corruption investigation launched by the state attorney general's office in 2007.
In the prosecution's opening statement, Senior Deputy Attorney General Ken Brown said DeWeese was able to hold top positions in his caucus, including House Speaker, due to an extensive system of using state employees and other resources for political campaigns and fundraising.
The prosecution's opening statement said DeWeese oversaw a systemic and extensive abuse of taxpayer-funded employees and threatened to fire those who didn't help with political campaigning and fundraising.
DeWeese made light of the trial, briefly talking to reporters before entering the courtroom, saying he prepared himself with his friends at the American Legion in Carmichaels, the Hiller Fire Hall, and Serb's Red Star, a bar in his legislative district.
In opening arguments, DeWeese's attorney, Bill Costopoulos, painted his client as a "son of steel country," who applied the working-class ethos of his constituents to his own job as a lawmaker. Costopoulos says both he and his client are confident in their case.
"Rep. DeWeese loves, lives, and works in the court of public opinion," he said. "The only audience I'm interested in is in the jury box. That's where my attention's going to be focused for the next two weeks."
DeWeese's attorney says the charges are petty, and DeWeese was too trusting of two staffers and a former House member who masterminded a scheme to reward state employees with large cash bonuses if they did political work.
"We are confident. We're not happy to be here, we're not here with any bravado, but we've waited a long time to get this done," Costopoulos said.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.