SCRANTON – Robert Mellow, a former leader of Pennsylvania’s Senate Democrats whose portrait hangs in the state Capitol, was sentenced Friday to 16 months in prison on public corruption charges.
U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky ordered Mellow, who pleaded guilty in May to federal conspiracy charge, to pay nearly $80,000 in restitution to the state Senate, along with a $40,000 fine to the federal government. Mellow has already paid $31,000 in restitution for filing a bogus tax return.
The former lawmaker issued a brief apology to the court. “I’m embarrassed and I’m ashamed. ... I’m very, very sorry,” he said.
Mellow was charged with tapping Senate staff for political fundraising and campaign work in violation of state law. He continued misusing staff even as fellow lawmakers were prosecuted as part of the state attorney general’s “Bonusgate” investigation, in which lawmakers were accused of handing out taxpayer-funded bonuses for campaign work.
At Mellow’s direction, staffers planned and ran picnic and golf fundraisers for his campaign committee, ran a “campaign school” for Democratic candidates, and did other political work while being paid by the Senate – and thus by Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Slomsky said Mellow knew better.
“No one has the right to misuse public dollars, your dollars that you send to Harrisburg,” the judge said. “It’s certainly not in the job description of a state senator to use public money for private political purposes.”
Slomsky also ordered Mellow – long one of the most powerful figures in state government – to spend three years on supervised release after his prison sentence. Mellow will report to the federal Bureau of Prisons on Jan. 15.
Defense attorney Daniel Brier argued Mellow, 69, should be spared prison and instead receive probation because of his charitable works, poor health and the fact that he’s a caregiver for his severely disabled adult daughter.
Another defense lawyer, Sal Cognetti, bemoaned what he called the criminalization of politics, contending the line that separates campaigning from legislating was blurry for most of Mellow’s time in office.
“Let’s not be too quick to bury him. Let’s not be too quick to judge him. Let’s consider his entire life,” said Cognetti, who read a few of the more than 200 character letters submitted on his client’s behalf by constituents, clergy, business and community leaders, and politicians ranging from former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell to former GOP state senator and Lt. Gov. Robert Jubelirer.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Sempa said Mellow deliberately evaded the law to further his own political career, and deserved to go to prison.
“This is a sad day in Pennsylvania political history because someone who was such an accomplished and effective legislator threw it all away,” he said. “Sen. Mellow corrupted his office ... for his own personal benefit.”
Mellow served 40 years in the state Senate and was among that chamber’s most powerful members. By his attorneys’ reckoning, he brought $2.3 billion to northeastern Pennsylvania during his time in office, including millions for a new medical school in Scranton.
He was the Senate’s longest-serving member when he left two years ago after deciding not to run for an 11th term.
Mellow was the Democrats’ floor leader for most of the last two decades he was in office, and his portrait hangs in the state Capitol because he briefly served as the Senate president pro tempore in the 1990s.
A number of state lawmakers and their aides have been prosecuted in recent years for misusing public funds and resources for campaigns and other purposes. In the House, a long-running state attorney general’s investigation resulted in convictions against former Speakers Bill DeWeese and John Perzel, former Reps. Brett Feese and Mike Veon, and others. In the Senate, Jane Orie was convicted in state court and Vince Fumo in federal court.