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November 15, 2007

Editorial | Legislative Largesse
The other shoe
The wrong folks lost their jobs in Harrisburg this week. House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) forced out seven Democratic aides, including his chief of staff. DeWeese's desperate move comes amid allegations that party leaders illegally rewarded some aides with taxpayer-funded bonuses for campaign work. House Democrats appear to be the probe's focus. They awarded about $1.9 million in bonuses in 2006, far more than the House GOP or either party in the Senate. DeWeese's Tuesday-morning massacre of staffers implies they are the ones responsible for the bonus embarrassment. And perhaps the investigation will show that some aides did abuse bonuses, or tried to hinder the probe. But if anyone needs to go, it's DeWeese. The sooner House Democrats face up to that reality and choose a new majority leader, the better. Legislators have spent most of this year trying to clean up the pay-raise mess made by DeWeese and other party leaders in 2005. A bipartisan House commission has worked long hours on reform proposals, including an open-records law and changes that discourage back-room deals by legislative leaders. But all that good work has been undermined by unflattering news about the disgraceful bonuses that came out of DeWeese's shop. Further, the indictment yesterday of a former representative indicated that DeWeese had a role in allowing a relative of that legislator to be paid for work she never did. DeWeese managed to hang on to his job when most of the old-guard party chiefs responsible for the pay raise were voted out last year. Since then, he has tried to clothe himself as a reformer. But the suit is a poor fit. Not only did DeWeese help to engineer the midnight pay raise, he punished Democrats who voted against it by stripping them of committee posts. DeWeese has allowed the House version of the open-records proposal this year to become a watereddown sham. No surprise, many of the exceptions added to the bill would shield or exempt the legislature. The House didn't vote as expected on the measure Tuesday - perhaps because the majority leader was too busy axing staffers.

The bonus probe raises two possible scenarios, neither of them good for DeWeese: Either the cash was intended as an illegal reward for campaign work, or it was a wasteful use of taxpayer dollars to encourage loyalty among staffers. If DeWeese authorized these secret bonuses, he's guilty of arrogance and horrible judgment. If he allowed staffers to run amok, then he is a failure as a leader. And it's difficult not to keep asking who benefitted from those bonuses. Yes, staffers who received $20,000 or more certainly did. But the lopsided expense by House Democrats in 2006 coincides with their party winning control of the House. And that made DeWeese majority leader. As long as House Democrats keep DeWeese as their leader, they won't convince anyone that a new day has dawned in Harrisburg.