February 18, 2007

A tangled Web at state House
Mario F. Cattabiani INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

GOP campaign material was improperly stored on a Pa. government Web site funded by taxpayers.

In the blue corner, Ed "Fatcat" Rendell, his gut spilling over his boxing trunks. In the red corner, a cut State Rep. John Perzel, muscles rippling. As the theme from Rocky plays, Perzel - former speaker of the state House - pummels the flailing governor, who gnaws a hoagie between rounds as he signs a bill raising taxes. Perzel makes quick work of Rendell - a metaphoric triumph over higher taxes. It's animated political humor, posted online in the style popularized during recent elections by such sites as JibJab.com. But it wasn't on JibJab. It was parked online by the state House Republican Caucus, on a Web site funded by tax dollars. So, too, were other campaign materials: photos of Perzel going door to door in his Northeast Philadelphia district, and a 20-minute video tribute narrated by his wife, Sheryl. There was even a 487-page primer on how to run legislative campaigns, produced by the Republican National Committee. Within an hour after The Inquirer began asking about the material Friday, House Republicans purged it from their computer network. Steve Miskin, press secretary to House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), said Republicans were investigating the matter, preparing a memo to all staff, and rewriting the employee handbook to bar such use of state computers. "It's wrong. It should not have happened, and it should never happen," Miskin said Friday. The head of a nonpartisan watchdog group agreed. "There is supposed to be a very clear and bright line between political activity and state government activity," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, who laughed out loud when he watched the animated boxing match. "This has clearly crossed the line."

The animation and the other campaign material were not accessible to the public unless the Web address was known. The site is used only by a select few House GOP Web designers - on state salaries - to store material, Miskin said. Even so, he said, "that doesn't make it right." He added, "Those responsible will be dealt with appropriately." Perzel knew nothing about what was on the Web site, said his spokesman, Martin O'Rourke. "It's improper, and he supports the effort to make it crystal-clear that this type of thing is wrong," O'Rourke said. Perzel was ousted as speaker in January after Democrats won the House majority in the the fall election. The House GOP later gave him the ceremonial title of speaker emeritus. The site containing the campaign-related material was registered and paid for with state money by the House Republican Caucus. Edmond McKenna, a House GOP Web editor in Harrisburg, registered the site in 2004, records show. It was unclear who had created the Perzel-vs.-Rendell cartoon or what its intended use had been. McKenna said Friday that a Web-hosting company in Beverly Hills, Calif., under contract with House Republicans might have mistakenly placed the material on the site. "As far as I know, it may have just been file misplacement," said McKenna, who declined to comment further. Kate Philips, Rendell's press secretary, called the cartoon "bush league." "Wrong doesn't begin to describe it," Philips said. (Rendell shatters a scale during the fight's weigh-in.) "It was disrespectful, distasteful and, frankly, a little dumb." It's not the first time House Republicans have faced questions about use of state computers. Last year, Russ Diamond, founder of PaCleanSweep, a group formed in response to the 2005 pay raise, sued a House GOP staffer for defamation. The suit alleged that the staffer, Bob Nye, had created an online parody equating Diamond with former Enron chief Kenneth Lay. Nye acknowledged the site was his, but said he had done it entirely on his home computer. A federal judge dismissed the case in October. Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com. Copyright (c) 2007 The Philadelphia Inquirer