OFF THE FLOOR: Corbett's Bonusgate decisions could define career, re-election.

OFF THE FLOOR A Capitolwire Column By Peter L. DeCoursey Bureau Chief Capitolwire HARRISBURG (Oct. 22) – Attorney General Tom Corbett believes he ought to personally decide on how to deal with the Republican bonusgate figures, even though that group of inter-connected major Corbett benefactors is vital to his hopes for re-election. Corbett wants to be Eliot Ness prosecuting political corruption and simultaneously hang onto his Insider’s Insider card in the Pennsylvania GOP, so he can raise enough money to get re-elected. To steal from an old Saturday Night Live routine, he wants to be both a dessert topping and a floor wax all in one package. The problem is that in life, and especially in public office, you have to choose between tasting good and leaving the floor with a sparkling shine. Corbett's apparent refusal to choose between what look like competing options was raised by Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, along with Chris Casey and Jim Eisenhower, the Democrats who may challenge Corbett in 2008. All three say Corbett should appoint an independent "Bonusgate" prosecutor because his re-election depends upon the good will of some legislative leaders whose activities his investigation ought to review. Corbett is investigating whether $3.6 million in bonuses paid by legislative leaders to staffers in 2005 and 2006 violated state laws. The probe also looks at other cases of alleged legislative corruption, according to reports in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other publications. Since House Democrats not only accounted for $2.3 million of that amount, 64 percent of the total, but also spent $1.9 million last year alone, as and after they won back the House, they are properly a major focus of the investigation. But House Democrats and some leaders say Corbett is ignoring Republicans in his investigation. House and Senate GOP staff account for more than $1.2 million of the bonuses over the two years. They say they have been asked for information but no staffers or members have been subpoenaed. The fact that House Democrats quadrupled their bonuses after winning back the House makes them a fertile ground to probe if those bonuses were related to political work by staffers. So does the fact, uncovered by the Post-Gazette, that 45 House Democratic staffers worked weekdays on campaigns in 2006 while collecting their state salaries. But how about the House GOP? They say they “dramatically” cut bonuses in 2006. And they did that after the election results made it clear they had taken a 109-94 majority and either lost control of the House or would cling to it by a single vote. They say their decision to slice staff bonuses came before they were absolutely certain they lost the House. That timing, they say, clears them of any charges of political calculation. Maybe, or perhaps House GOP leaders cut bonuses as a message to staff about what happens when

your 15-vote lead shrinks to one or disappears completely. Only way to tell would be to investigate. And why were the bonuses kept secret by all four caucuses, anyway? What was the intent there? How about the Senate? Well, over there, staffers, who spent a lot of time in 2006 doing campaign work for Senate leaders or gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, got roughly the same five-figure bonuses in 2006 they got in 2005, even while working less for the state. House Democratic staffers who are accused of doing that for former House Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver, are getting lots of Corbett's time and energy. And plenty of leaks to reporters about their activities, too. Corbett can’t, legally, explain what he is doing and why, because a grand jury is still investigating. And this is emphatically not a question about Corbett’s integrity, which as far as I know, is as strong as most anyone else’s in Pennsylvania politics. But follow the money. In 2004, Corbett spent $3.1 million to get re-elected. More than $2 million of it came from Republican insiders. The Republican State Committee, Republican National Committeeman Bob Asher and the Republican Attorney General’s Association provided $1.7 million. Donors whom former Senate GOP leaders or former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, could divert from Corbett with a single phone call gave almost $500,000 more. So about 70 percent of Corbett’s money came from two circles which are both tightly controlled by a handful of powerful Republican politicians and donors. That is the smallest and most inter-connected group of donors I have ever seen for a statewide candidate who raised $3 million. And remember, while all the attention so far has been about staffers, staffers accepting bonuses may have broken no laws. It’s the legislative leaders who handed out bonuses who are in big legal, orangewardrobe-type trouble if Corbett proves that they funneled taxpayer money to staffers for campaign work or any other illegal purpose. So Corbett has to go get money from a Republican State Committee and state party that Asher, Perzel, and former Senate President Pro Tem Robert C. Jubelirer, R-Blair, have played like a well-tuned piano for decades. While deciding what to do about the GOP legislative leader aspects of Bonusgate. Again, this is not a discussion about the moral character of Tom Corbett. But what he is doing is like sticking your head in the mouth of one shark after another: just one mistake and you're the Headless Horseman at the Halloween Play. The problems with appointing a special counsel are simple: if he does that, Corbett looks like he couldn't see this issue until Morganelli, his potential Democratic opponent, pointed it out. Also, if Corbett appoints a special counsel, that guy becomes Eliot Ness and Corbett becomes the guy who stepped aside because of politics and appointed the Eliot Ness Guy. Of course, Corbett could still imitate former Attorney General Mike Fisher and indict a high-level Republican or two, which would quiet any such criticisms. But while supporters tout Corbett's staff's conviction of state Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Allegheny, as proof of his willingness to take on his party, he inherited that case. Habay was charged with misusing his office for campaign purposes not by Corbett, but by Jerry Pappert, Corbett's predecessor.

And which Republican bigwig in Bonusgate can Corbett charge, without running afoul of his donors, GOP power brokers and Republican State Committee? And Corbett knows that Fisher was punished, not rewarded by the party establishment, for insisting that Rep. Frank Serafini, R-Lackawanna, resign after he was convicted for making illegal campaign contributions in 1999. Serafini refused to resign because Perzel convinced Serafini control of the House could potentially depend on his filing more frivolous appeals and delaying his resignation. Fisher had to file in Commonwealth Court to expel Serafini, then fight for two months, before Serafini finally resigned in February of 2000, well before Perzel preferred that to happen. Fisher would have lost to Ed Rendell for governor in 2002, regardless of Perzel treating him like a piñata in that election. But Corbett has to wonder: could his re-election campaign withstand that kind of torpedo from a major GOP power broker? In other words, when he has to taste the investigation and campaign he would like to keep separate, will his tongue recoil from floor wax? It used to be said that this investigation would determine if Corbett could run for governor. Now his re-election for attorney general will likely become a referendum on how Corbett handled this investigation, and what voters think it told them about his abilities, politics and judgement. -30-

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