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HARRISBURG PATRIOT NEWS

Seized files ruled relevant
BY CHARLES THOMPSON / Of The Patriot-News October 16, 2007 Confidential campaign plans. Opponent profiles. Analyses of political attitudes in House districts. All were recovered by state attorney general’s agents executing what investigators termed a “surgical” eight-minute search Aug., 23 of the state House Democrats’ Office of Legislative Research. The judge supervising a state grand jury said all are relevant to the attorney general’s effort to determine whether taxpayer-funded bonuses paid to legislative staffers were actually rewards for political work. Using the bonuses in that manner would be illegal. Judge Barry Feudale, in a 51-page explanation of his Sept. 26 order upholding the legitimacy of the Aug. 23 search, largely rejected Democrats’ claims of legislative protection for the seized materials. Feudale ruled after examining the 20 boxes in private, according to the report issued Tuesday. Attorney General Tom Corbett’s office in February launched an investigation into $3.6 million in bonus payments to hundreds of legislative staffers through the 2005-06 General Assembly session. The bonuses were first reported by The Patriot-News in January. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate all awarded bonuses, but the House Democrats’ program was the largest: $435,000 in bonuses in 2005 and more than $1.8 million last year, when the party regained control of the House. House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Greene, has said the bonuses were not tied to work on campaigns. No criminal charges have been filed, and Corbett’s office, in keeping with its policy regarding grand jury investigations, has not commented on the probe. But, according to Feudale’s finding, Corbett’s agents in taking the case before the grand jury noted that potential crimes under investigation include theft, misapplication of government property and violations of ethics and election codes. The grand jury, sitting in Harrisburg, is expected to hear testimony from House Democratic staffers this week. Feudale stated in his finding that most of the seized material, including dossiers on legislators serving through the 1990s and into the early part of this decade, were innocuous enough, containing Pennsylvania Manual biographies, old press releases and memos seeking co-sponsorships to newly introduced bills.

But he wrote that “30 to 40 files” were more political in nature. House Democrats’ attorneys have appealed Feudale’s order to the state Supreme Court, citing federal and state “legislative privilege” protections for the seized material. Those protections are designed to keep lawmakers free to represent constituents’ interests without fear of politically inspired prosecutions. They do not immunize legislators or staffers from illegal conduct. Feudale wrote that he addressed that issue by ordering the seized boxes sealed and taken directly to his chambers, where he conducted a private review of the documents. “With all due regard for the advocacy of counsel for the caucus, I do not see this case as one that implicates a Constitutional crisis,” the judge stated. Efforts to reach the Democrats’ lawyers for comment on this story were not successful. In a separate development in the bonus probe Tuesday, case files showed a second person connected with the probe has been granted immunity from prosecution. The immunity order was sealed, so it was not known to whom it applied. Such applications are generally made to guarantee testimony from a witness worried about incriminating himself. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported earlier this month that former Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-Lawrence County, had received a grant of partial immunity for information on internal House Democratic Caucus operations. LaGrotta is under separate investigation for alleged ethics code violations, the newspaper reported. CHARLES THOMPSON: 705-5724 or cthompson@patriot-news.com