As grand jury's probe of bonuses widens, look for ways to tamp down partisanship

October 22, 2007 The state Senate went whistling past the graveyard last week with a unanimous vote to forbid the payment of bonuses to staff members in the future. It was the right thing to do, of course. But a grand jury looking into whether such bonuses were given in the past for political campaign work by staff who were on the taxpayers' dime soon may widen its reach. Last week, Commonwealth Court Judge Barry Feudale, who is overseeing the grand jury's work, ruled that 18 boxes of records seized from a House Democratic research office can be presented to the jury as evidence. The judge characterized the material as an effort ''to keep a 'book' on certain legislators and/or candidates for office'' and said it was clearly not legislative in nature. Among the items taken from the House Democratic Office of Legislative Research in the state capitol building were files labeled ''opposition research'' ''incumbent protection plan'' and ''memo on challenger in election,'' the Pi ttsburgh Post-Gazette has reported. The grand jury's work was inspired by disclosure that both Democratic and Republican legislative leaders gave key staff members end-of-year bonuses in 2006. The House Democrats gave about $1.9 million to employees and House Republicans distributed about $270,000. In the Senate, the Democrats' bonuses totaled $38,000 and Senate Republicans, $180,000. It is against the law for a legislative employee to do party or campaign work during the work day or use state office space, equipment or supplies. Since the total bonuses going to Democratic employees were larger than those going to Republicans, it has been reported that evidence given to the grand jury so far by state Attorney General Tom Corbett has focused on Democrats. About 15 employees have been called to testify, including employees of House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg and former Minority Leader Michael Veon, who lost his seat in last year's election. State Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney, the former state representative from Fountain Hill, protested on Oct. 14 that Mr. Corbett was not investigating Republicans who got bonuses. The attorney general, who is a Republican, denied that, and suggested that the case be allowed to run its course. On Oct. 16, Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, a Democrat who plans to challenge Mr. Corbett next year, called for him to appoint an independent prosecutor. We have no reason to question Mr. Corbett's independence and integrity, but Mr. Morganelli's suggestion isn't a bad one. Having someone who is not seeking re-election take care of the grand jury presentments as next year's campaign gets under way would be good for those important proceedings -regardless of who suggested the change in the first place.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful