Is state bonus probe partisan?
Sunday, August 03, 2008 BY CHARLES THOMPSON AND BRETT LIEBERMAN Of The Patriot-News The situations might sound familiar. · Five-figure bonuses were given to state legislative staffers who spent weeks on campaign work. · A former legislative staffer said her old boss routinely ran his House campaigns out of his district office. · A change in computer systems coincided with word that an investigation was under way. You might guess that these are the latest revelations from Attorney General Tom Corbett's investigation into the House Democratic caucus. These actually are some of the facts that have surfaced over the last year out of the House and Senate Republican caucuses -- groups that Corbett, a Republican, has insisted will receive the same scrutiny as Democrats. For now, no charges have been filed. That wasn't the case with the Democrats. Last month, after an 18-month investigation, Corbett and his public-corruption unit announced charges against 12 people who were affiliated with the House Democratic caucus. They included former whip Mike Veon of Beaver County and Michael Manzo, the former chief of staff to House Democratic leader William DeWeese. The investigation of the Democrats intensified after concerns were raised about possible destruction of evidence, Corbett said. His investigators found an electronic trail of e-mails and other evidence that set them on their way, he said. That investigation is continuing, and more charges could follow. But to many observers, the onus now is on Corbett and his staff to prove that he has looked just as hard at Republicans in the Legislature -- even those 2004-era decision-makers who supported and steered dollars into his campaign for attorney general. "It's not partisan in the sense that the cases look pretty sound," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. But "if this was going on on the Democratic side, you have to wonder if similar practices were going on somewhere else." Here's a look at some of the questions that have been raised about Republicans at the Capitol during the investigation. Bonuses: Just like the House Democrats, the Republican caucuses had bonus programs, and some of the largest bonuses in any caucus were awarded to GOP staffers. No publicly documented evidence has surfaced tying their bonuses to campaign work. Legally, staffers can get bonuses. And staffers can do campaign work on their own time. But they can't get taxpayer-funded bonuses to do campaign work. Staffers can use their own time or take leaves of absence to do campaign work, but they can't use taxpayer-paid time for campaign work. That is what the Democrats are accused of doing.
Top GOP bonuses in 2006 included $22,500 to Michael Long, a staff administrator to former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer. Long took about six weeks of leave that year to work for Jubelirer's re-election effort. Another $22,500 went to Stephen MacNett, the general counsel to the Senate Republicans who also serves as the treasurer of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. A $19,467 payment was given to J. Andrew Crompton, a Senate Republican staffer who took 14 weeks of leave in 2006 to work on Republican Lynn Swann's gubernatorial campaign. MacNett defended the Senate bonuses last week. He said Crompton and other staffers put in tremendous effort on the state's property tax cuts that the Legislature approved that year. Long was instrumental in guiding the caucus through a leadership transition after Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader David "Chip" Brightbill were defeated at the polls, MacNett said. On the House GOP side, a $16,427 bonus was paid in 2006 to Brian Preski, the chief of staff to former Speaker John Perzel. Preski never went on leave from his state job, which paid $164,000. At the same time, Perzel's campaign committee was paying him a $60,000 salary, plus reimbursements for travel and other expenses. Now working as a lawyer in Philadelphia, Preski made only limited comment about his activity in an interview with The Patriot-News several months ago, saying the bonus was partly in recognition of his unpaid service as the chief clerk of the House after a vacancy in that position. As to his simultaneous wearing of campaign and staff hats, Preski said, "We always made sure the legislative work got done first, before we did any of the campaign work." Computer changes: The House GOP replaced computer equipment in 2007, after Corbett would have launched his investigation. Corbett said e-mail trails provided some of the best, real-time evidence about the alleged conspiracy among the Democrats. Democrats critical of the staging of the probe have argued that Republicans were given ample opportunity to clean their records. House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin confirmed last week that all GOP desktop computers were replaced from July 17 to Sept. 6 last year at the Capitol and from Sept. 24 through Nov. 2 at district offices. That was when the probe of House Democrats was intensifying. But Miskin has contended that, because all prior records were archived on the Republicans' network servers, no potential evidence of interest to Corbett should have been lost. "I can assure you that we have not destroyed any information," Miskin said. Campaign work: Lisa Ann Deon is a former staffer to state Rep. Matt Wright of Bucks County and has said that Wright's staff routinely did campaign work out of his Langhorne district office. In an affidavit from last year that was provided to Corbett's office, Deon stated that, early on, when she became more certain of the firewall that is supposed to exist between campaigns and governing, she confronted Wright about his political assignments. "I would explain to Representative Wright that this was not proper," Deon stated. "Each time, Representative Wright told me not to worry about it, 'everyone does it.'" The practice continued until she reported it to Republican leaders in early 2006, at which point House staffers offered her a job in another office, Deon said.
Neither Deon nor Wright responded to requests for an interview for this story. Other questions include whether taxpayer-funded resources were used for political material. Corbett's campaigns: All of this will play out against the backdrop of Corbett's re-election race this year and his status as a contender for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010. Corbett is under pressure to apply the same level of scrutiny to the Republican caucuses as he did to the House Democrats. Some Democrats -- even while conceding the allegations against their former colleagues don't look good -- said they believe politics has already been played, if only in the timing of the investigation. Democrats said Corbett's office has called more than 100 Democratic staffers in for interviews or testimony before grand juries, compared with what they claimed is a handful of Republicans. There's an advantage there if only in terms of giving people time to get their stories straight, some Democrats said. "He's using this lame excuse that [House Democrats] gave the most bonuses," a state Democrat official said. "I don't care if it was $10. If they gave bonuses for campaign work, it's wrong." Like many Democrats, that official would speak only on the condition of anonymity. Republicans in the Legislature have supported Corbett's campaigns. In his 2004 race, Jubelirer, Brightbill and Perzel were among his biggest donors. As recently as September, Corbett's campaign committee received a contribution from a political action committee linked to Brightbill, the Great Valley Leadership Fund. Corbett's campaign returned money to the Great Valley Leadership Fund this April, "once we realized it was something Senator Brightbill had created after he left office," said Corbett's campaign manager, Brian Nutt. Nutt said the money was returned in keeping with a policy to not take new money from any lawmakers who were in office during the period under investigation or any committees affiliated with those lawmakers. In his races, Corbett has drawn lines between taxpayer-funded staff work and campaign work done by staffers on their time. Nutt, for example, moved from a full-time campaign role in 2004 to serving as Corbett's chief of staff through most of his first term in office. Nutt then returned to the campaign full time in June. As the campaign manager, Nutt is paid from the Friends of Tom Corbett Committee, and he gives up his state salary and benefits. From 2005 through February of this year, however, state campaign records state, Nutt was reimbursed more than $7,000 for travel, lodging, meals and other expenses that he incurred on behalf of Corbett's political effort. That has drawn fire from Corbett's Democratic challenger, John Morganelli, who has argued the attorney general should have a separate political staff. Nutt, however, one of three full-time staffers of the attorney general's office who have made the move as the general election season approaches, said he has been religious about conducting his political business on his time and outside of the office. "There's a right way to do it, and a wrong way," Nutt said. The Democrats are charged with "major accusations of inappropriate use of taxpayer money for campaigns. ... It's not about taking a leave of
absence to help on a campaign," he said. Meanwhile, members of Corbett's public-corruption team consider concerns about a partisan investigation ill-informed. They said last month they have the autonomy and the intent to follow the investigation to its conclusion, with no regard for political stripes. At the Capitol, there are reports that some Republican staffers are starting to be contacted by agents. "It's not limited to one caucus. Not even close," said Frank Fina, the chief of the public-corruption unit. "Anybody who violated the law is going to get it."