Ex-state lawmaker Veon granted new trial in corruption case

HARRISBURG (AP) — A former high-ranking Democrat in the Pennsylvania House who served jail time for misusing a nonprofit for his own benefit was awarded a new trial Tuesday after a state high court justice called his conviction a “criminalization of politics.”

The state Supreme Court ruled a Dauphin County judge erred when he told jurors hearing the case against former Rep. Mike Veon that Veon did not have to gain financially to be convicted of violating the conflict-of-interest law. The Supreme Court’s main opinion said the crime must involve a financial benefit, and that intangible political benefits are not sufficient.

“The trial court’s jury instruction here made of the statute a meat axe, finding (or creating) a conflict of interest in every dais, at each parade, and at every ribbon-cutting, given that the very nature of seeking to satisfy one’s constituents and secure re-election all but requires the taking of official action to secure intangible political gains,” wrote Justice David Wecht in announcing the decision . “This criminalization of politics is a bridge too far.”

The court ordered a new trial on the conflict of interest charge but did not say that also included the nine other counts for which he was convicted. His lawyer, Joel Sansone, argued the decision means a new trial is required on all charges and predicted prosecutors will not have the appetite to retry his client. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said only that it was reviewing the decision.

“This was a total and complete vindication,” Sansone said. “This is a total victory. The only reason for this was to clear Mike’s name, and we have fought these politically motivated charges all along.”

Justice Christine Donohue said she would have simply dismissed the conflict-of-interest charge.

Veon was a former Democratic House whip and a powerful figure in state politics before his arrest in 2008. He was first tried and convicted for his role in a scheme to use state funds to pay bonuses to legislative staffers for campaign work, and in a second trial was convicted of misusing taxpayer money through the Beaver Initiative for Growth nonprofit organization.

The court’s ruling pertains to the Beaver Initiative for Growth case, for which Veon was found guilty in 2012. The decision does not involve the bonus case, for which Veon was sentenced to six to 14 years and ordered to pay $1.9 million in restitution.

The high court said the county judge also should not have granted $135,000 in restitution to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, saying the agency was neither a victim under the relevant law nor had it reimbursed a qualifying victim. Wecht suggested state lawmakers may want to revise the law.

“It cannot be denied that, in this case, public funds were diverted to inappropriate purposes and thus were unavailable to be used in the ways intended, effectively victimizing the commonwealth and its citizens,” Wecht wrote. “As a consequence of this ruling, these are moneys that the commonwealth will never recover.”

Veon, 59, served five years in state prison on the two sets of convictions and was paroled in June 2015. Sansone said Veon now lives in Pittsburgh and is working as a consultant and pursuing business interests.