It has been 44 months since a federal corruption probe of state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata became public knowledge, and 43 months since federal agents searched his and his son's Oakland homes.

Witnesses have testified before a federal grand jury. Thousands of pages of documents have been gathered under dozens of subpoenas issued to public agencies and private companies.

Perata's legal defense fund has spent about $2 million, much of that either transferred from one of his campaign accounts or given by the state Democratic party. Almost four years on, some wonder whether it's time for the federal government to fish or cut bait.

"You would think that if they had something, they'd have done something with it years ago, not two months before his term in office ends," said longtime Democratic Assembly aide Bill Cavala.

"I don't believe the investigation produced any facts or evidence that would lead to an indictment," he said.

"It does seem like a long time," said former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Rick Smith, now president of a private investigation firm in San Francisco. "They don't want to drop it obviously because they think there's some substance there, and they don't want to indict him without sufficient evidence, so it goes on."

Smith also noted that U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello could make a decision. Russoniello, 66, who held the post from 1982 to 1990, probably doesn't see the case as a career springboard, Smith said: "He's not going to be hesitant to do what he thinks is right."

A recent San Francisco Chronicle story called attention to the relationship between Perata and Dawson Mathis, a former congressman from Georgia. Perata in 2000 urged the Port of Oakland, the Alameda County Transportation Authority and the city of Alameda to pay Mathis $135,000 to lobby for a road that Perata's friend and major donor, developer Ron Cowan, wanted built to connect his Harbor Bay Isle development to the Oakland Airport. Investigators reportedly want to know whether any of that money went to Perata.

John Burton, who preceded Perata as state Senate president pro tem and who reportedly recommended Mathis for the lobbying job to Perata, harshly criticized the story.

"They feel like it's a big story and they haven't been writing about it" and now need to play catch-up, Burton said. Cowan, who testified long ago before the grand jury, last week said he had no he hadn't heard anything about the investigation in a long time.

"In my opinion, I know Don well and I just don't see any grounds of any kind whatsoever for all this stuff."

Mathis would not take a call seeking comment last week.

Investigators have been looking into financial ties between Perata and his son, Nick Perata, and Nick Perata's company, Exit Strategies; his daughter, Rebecca Perata-Rosati, and her businesses, Vox Populi and BPR Communications; his friend, Tim Staples, and Staples' businesses, Ascendent Solutions, Staples Associates and Socratic Solutions; Oakland lobbyist Lily Hu; former Perata aide Sandi Polka and her business, Polka consultants; and others.

The probe hasn't kept Perata from steering work to his family and friends. In February, the campaign for Proposition 93 — the term-limit-reform measure backed by Perata and then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles — paid $10,000 to the campaign consulting firm Liquid Logistics, a business name registered to Nick Perata.

The same campaign paid Polka more than $116,000 from August 2007 through March. In April and May, the Perata-initiated campaign to recall state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, paid Polka about $78,000.

Perata is a former Alameda public school teacher and was an Alameda County supervisor and an assemblyman before winning a Senate seat in 1998.

Reach Josh Richman at 510-208-6428 or jrichman@bayareanewsgroup.com.