October 14, 2007

Pa. probe of House bonuses widens
Mario F. Cattabiani and Angela Couloumbis INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

Six more aides have been subpoenaed, including one who got 40 percent extra pay after spending a third of 2006 on leave campaigning..

HARRISBURG - In the widening investigation known as Bonusgate, the state attorney general has subpoenaed six more legislative staffers to testify before a grand jury examining whether public bonuses were awarded for political campaign work last year, sources with knowledge of the inquiry said. One of the aides who was called to testify received a bonus equal to 40 percent of her salary as a government researcher although she spent a third of the year on leave campaigning for House Democrats. The latest round of subpoenas brings to at least 14 the number of staffers summoned by Attorney General Tom Corbett. All are Democratic employees of the state House - a fact that some top Democratic leaders say is no coincidence. Although House Democrats gave the most in year-end cash bonuses - $1.9 million last year to 678 staffers - they believe that there are glaring examples of bonuses handed out on the GOP side, and that Corbett, a Republican, has brushed them aside so far in an inquiry guided by politics. "This is an Alberto Gonzales-like investigation," said T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. "It seems that he has ignored the fact that red flags exist on his side of the field and is only pursuing the blue flags on our side." Corbett declined to comment about any grand jury matters, citing secrecy rules. But he said he was "extremely disappointed that before the results of the investigation have been announced that Mr. Rooney, as the leader of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, has resorted to name-calling." Kevin Harley, Corbett's press secretary, added that the Attorney General's Office had prosecuted Republicans and Democrats alike, and that "it follows the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of political affiliation."

The central question being examined in Harrisburg: Were legislative employees paid bonuses using taxpayer dollars as a reward for campaign work they performed, sometime for their bosses, which some believe would be illegal? Handing out bonuses at the end of the year was a well-established, if secret, practice in Harrisburg's legislative circles. But when it became public early this year after an article in the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, it created a public outcry and became the seed for Corbett's investigation. All four caucuses have said they had policies allowing aides to work on campaigns as long as the work wasn't on state time. Traditionally, staffers took unpaid leaves or used their vacation and compensatory time to help out, legislative leaders have said. Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and the Senate had said the bonuses were based on merit, not campaign work, but nonetheless ended the practice after the controversy. Corbett's investigation comes while lawmakers are still smarting from self-inflicted wounds two years ago when they gave themselves pay raises. Many in the Capitol fear the bonus scandal, involving $4 million in public money over the past two years, could have the same political toll: Two dozen lawmakers were swept out of office from the pay-raise fallout. And House Democrats have the most to lose. They recaptured control of the chamber last year after toiling in the minority since 1995 - but only by a single seat. Given the political stakes, a hush has fallen around this issue, and few want to talk about it. Still, although the grand jury operates in secret, what's known publicly gives clues to what Corbett has pursued so far. In August, agents from his office hauled away 20 boxes of records from the Legislative Research Office of House Democrats. A month later, eight House Democratic staffers - some of whom worked in that office - were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury. One, who spoke to The Inquirer on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors had focused their questions on the bonus the staffer received and leaves taken to do campaign work. But what struck the staffer was the question that wasn't asked during more than an hour on the grand jury stand: whether there was a correlation, promised or implied, between the two. "I think they didn't ask me that because they wouldn't have liked the answer: 'No,' " the staffer said. On Thursday and Friday, six more House Democratic staffers are scheduled to appear under subpoena. Four received bonuses last year: Eric Webb, director of member services, $17,685; Linda Notarangelo, an office manager, $445; and Karen Steiner and Michele Borlinghaus, research analysts, $15,065 each.

Of the four, Borlinghaus stands out. She had an annual salary of $37,492, but went on unpaid leave for four months leading up to the fall elections to work for the House Democratic Campaign Committee, whose mission is to get Democrats elected and reelected to the House. While on leave, she was paid $8,900 by the committee. Though she spent a third of the year campaigning, Borlinghaus got a bonus that amounted to 40 percent of her state salary at the end of the year. In 2005, a year when she spent little time campaigning, she got a far smaller bonus: $1,500. House Democrats said they gave Borlinghaus such a large bonus last year because they had promised her a higher paying job but one wasn't available at the time. They feared she would leave for another job. Attempts to reach Borlinghaus for comm.ent were unsuccessful. Bonuses were not limited to House Democratic staffers. At the end of 2006, House Republicans gave $270,000 to 45 aides, Senate Republicans gave $180,000 to 16 workers, and Senate Democrats awarded $38,000 to a dozen. Top aides to those caucuses say the attorney general has not subpoenaed any members of their staffs or any records. Democrats wonder why those others have apparently escaped similar scrutiny. They point to bonuses given to three top Republican aides: Mike Long, the Senate's former chief Republican strategist; Drew Crompton, a high-ranking attorney for Senate Republicans; and Brian Preski, onetime chief of staff to then-House Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.). Long received a $22,500 bonus in 2006. He also went on leave for about six weeks, off and on, to work for the Republican State Committee, which paid him an additional $13,400 for his campaign help. Long said last week that he and other members of the Senate who had done campaign work had been careful not to mix campaigning and their day jobs. He also said only a handful of Senate staffers who had received bonuses worked on campaigns. "More importantly," added Long, now a lobbyist in Harrisburg, "very few of the people who were off the payroll working on campaigns got bonuses." Crompton took 14 weeks of unpaid leave last year to work on the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann. For his campaign work, the Republican State Committee paid Crompton $30,300. Then, at the end of the year, he received a $19,500 government bonus. "I work a lot of hours, and I've worked on significant issues here," said Crompton, who believes his bonus was for efforts to enact tax-reform and lobbying-disclosure legislation. "And just because some of us did political work, people shouldn't jump to conclusions and disregard the legislative work we did."

Preski received a $15,500 bonus last year. Without taking a leave from his public job, Preski also picked up $60,000 for his work for Perzel's campaign committee. Preski, now a lawyer in private practice in Philadelphia, said his bonus had been for his work as chief of staff and for serving, unpaid, as chief clerk, a post that was vacant for part of the year. Speaking publicly on the topic for the first time in months, House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) said many in his caucus were concerned that the investigation had been dragging on, with negative headlines trained only on House Democrats. He acknowledged that it was impossible to know exactly what the grand jury was investigating, but nonetheless was worried that there had been "no indication of investigative activity of the other caucuses." DeWeese also said House Democrats were cooperating with the investigation. "I have known Tom Corbett for a long time as a seasoned prosecutor and respect the indications from his office that they are investigating the other caucuses as aggressively as they are investigating our caucus," DeWeese said. Yet some Democrats question whether that is happening. They remain irked that Corbett apparently hasn't followed up on information in a February Inquirer article about campaign-related materials that were archived on the House Republican computer network but quickly purged after a reporter starting asking about them. The paper reported that the network, funded with tax dollars, held an animated political cartoon of Perzel defeating Gov. Rendell in a prize fight, photos of Perzel campaigning door-to-door, a video tribute to Perzel, and a 487-page primer on how to run legislative campaigns. Corbett is up for reelection next year and has an eye on the governor's mansion in 2010. Some Democrats believe he is beholden to Republican leaders who raised money to help elect him. In Corbett's defense, Republicans and even some Democrats privately said that the grand jury was secret, that it should remain so, and that no one knew for certain whether Corbett was not pursuing members of his own party. It's also logical, they said, for him to focus initially on House Democrats because their bonuses were four times what the other three caucuses gave combined. And House Democrats were also the only caucus that spent significantly more in bonuses in 2006, after a hard-fought election, records show. The House Democrats gave out about $1.4 million more than they did in 2005. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate awarded roughly the same amounts they did in 2005, while House Republicans gave out less in 2006. Further complicating matters for House Democrats is a separate yet related grand jury impaneled by Corbett in Pittsburgh. That grand jury is focusing on allegations that Frank LaGrotta, a former 10-term Democratic representative from Lawrence County, put his niece and sister on the House payroll. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week that LaGrotta, who was defeated last year amid the pay-raise uproar, is cooperating with Corbett and has told investigators that at least two caucus employees who worked for the Tourism and Recreational Development Committee, where he was the ranking Democrat, spent nearly all their time on political-campaign duties and performed little or no legislative work. LaGrotta did not respond to Inquirer phone calls seeking comment.