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House Democrats fight probe of bonus payments

By CHARLES THOMPSON / Of The Patriot-News, 09/19/07 10:19 PM EDT UPDATED: 09/19/07 10:49 PM EDT State House Democratic leaders are waging a legal battle against Attorney General Tom Corbett’s probe of taxpayer-funded bonus payments to legislative staffers. In appeals filed before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, attorneys for the House Democrats are seeking to pre-empt subpoenas requiring several caucus employees to appear before a statewide investigating grand jury. The grand jury, which is meeting in Harrisburg, is probing the payment of $3.6 million in bonuses to legislative staffers during the 2005-06 session. Corbett has said that he is looking into whether the bonuses were intended as compensation for staffers who worked on legislative campaigns. Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate gave out bonuses, but House Democrats paid the most. Corbett’s agents raided the House Democrats’ Office of Legislative Research on Aug. 23 and seized several boxes after serving a search warrant, House officials have said. Attorneys have now filed separate motions with the grand jury’s supervising judge seeking a return of "privileged documents seized in the execution of a search warrant" at the legislative office. It was not clear Wednesday if the judge had ruled on that case. Attorneys for House Democrats declined comment. "I’m not going to have any discussion whatsoever," said Robert Graci, outside counsel retained by the caucus. A spokesman for Corbett’s office declined comment. A Democratic caucus source, who asked not to be identified, confirmed the legal fights are under way as the caucus seeks to defend itself against accusations that some bonus payments were rewards for campaign work or donations in an election year. Democrats regained control of the House in last fall’s election. It is common for legislative staffers to take leave or personal time to work on campaigns. It would be illegal for their employers to pay them for that work with state funds. Corbett’s office has spent six months investigating payment of the bonuses.

All four legislative caucuses - House and Senate Democrats, and House and Senate Republicans - had bonus programs. But House Democrats, whose bonuses jumped from $435,000 in 2005 to more than $1.8 million in 2006, have been under the closest scrutiny. House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Greene, has said that the bonuses weren’t tied to campaign work. The probe has gone before the grand jury in the last month. Last week, House Democratic staffers answered subpoenas to appear before the grand jury. Documents submitted in grand jury matters are sealed and not available for public review. Anytime a party to a case before a statewide investigating grand jury wants to contest a subpoena compelling testimony, a search warrant or some other proceeding, they can appeal that order to the judge supervising the grand jury. If a party is not satisfied with that result, the next avenue of appeal is to the Supreme Court. Supreme Court dockets show appeals were launched last week on behalf of some of the seven House Democratic employees identified as having received subpoenas. At least two of those named, Jennifer Brubaker, director of the Office of Legislative Research, and Charles Quinnan, a staffer in that office through last year, appeared before the grand jury last week, though it was not known if they testified. According to the appeals, others named in the subpoenas are Ryan L. Kline, Christa Kraber, William D. Minnick and Stephen A. Webb, all employees of the research office staff, and David Bliss, who until last year was the scheduling director for former Democratic Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver. Bliss now works as a research analyst for Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny County. The subpoenaed employees’ attorneys chose not to comment or didn’t return calls on Wednesday.