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Pols Apart

How politicians like ex-sheriff DeFazio fare in the justice system

Last Tuesday, convicts got a little early holiday gift when retired Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio pleaded guilty in federal court to macing.

I am not bringing this up as a sneaky way of kicking the sheriff when he's down, like the rest of the press does. For all I know, he might be the nicest guy in the world, though since he's a politician I doubt it.

The bottom line is simply that convicts like nothing better than seeing someone on the other side of the criminal-justice game get his comeuppance. When I called my old bunky, henceforth known in this column as JD, and told him that the sheriff got bagged for macing, he laughed and said, "It's about time. They maced me one time in L.A. County. Got me right in the face. Nobody ever got in any trouble for that. And damn, it hurt too. Everything looked blurry for a couple of hours."

I explained that macing was another word for shaking down an employee for political contributions. And that the sheriff was probably going to get only a year's worth of probation -- which translates to maybe four one-hour trips to the Probation Office spread out over a year. JD was less excited when he heard this, but he was still amused.

As JD knows, whenever an eminent person gets perp-walked into the courthouse in front of the TV cameras, it's not uncommon for the judge to cut him a little slack for having suffered shame. This doesn't work with all eminent people: Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, for example, caught 24 years. But the kind of eminent people I'm referring to are usually politicians who still have a lot of friends. Apparently they have a lower pain threshold than most people when suffering shame.

To be precise, Pete DeFazio wasn't charged with macing per se, and he maintains that he never personally put the arm on anybody. The charges he pleaded to involved knowing that macing occurred, and benefiting from that macing.

It seems to me that under federal law, that admission makes him guilty of conspiracy to mace, but I might be wrong. I mean, everybody who works for the county or state knows AFSCME union members who go to a lot of banquets, fund-raisers and golf outings. It's generally considered a small price to pay for working short hours and getting off on all of the holidays, even the silly ones.

But enough about Pete DeFazio. Even if he is a cop, since he didn't get any time, most convicts will forget about him before the next Steelers game. The pols who amuse cons the most are the ones who actually end up in the joint. They're fun to watch, especially when they first come in and are still a little scared.

Do a few years in a low-level federal joint and you're bound to meet a few. I can recall a couple dozen at least, ranging from congressmen to mayors to county commissioners. Most of them ended up coming in only after their administration left office or their party was no longer in control.

The funny thing -- that's funny ironic, not funny ha ha -- is that most pols get along fine in the joint. They're generally accepted, if not well liked. That's not to say that criminals and politicians are all cut from the same piece of cloth, though that often seemed to be the case. Rather, the politicians' popularity was a matter of the personalities that made them successful in the first place. The ones who'd had real power got special treatment, from both the convicts and the guards. Everybody likes to believe that they have friends in high places, and who could tell whom these guys might still know?

It doesn't matter much now, but it probably wouldn't have killed DeFazio to have chilled 90 days in Morgantown Camp. He could have gotten away from his cell phone for awhile, hit the gym and buffed up a little. There are enough Pittsburghers down there for him to have been a local big shot. Some of the convicts, and most of the guards, would have kissed his butt. Senior staff would have messed with him -- they're Republicans -- but that would have only made everybody else down there like him more.