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By Mario F. Cattabiani and Angela Couloumbis Inquirer Staff Writers
HARRISBURG - Since the Bonusgate corruption probe was launched two years ago, Rep. Bill DeWeese has adamantly and repeatedly denied knowing that taxpayer money secretly had been used to underwrite political campaigns. But records turned over to defendants in the case by Attorney General Tom Corbett appear to paint a different picture of the onetime House Democratic leader, who has not been charged in the ongoing investigation. Documents show that in 2006, facing a stiff challenge in an election that DeWeese nearly lost, his campaign tapped a state-paid computer consultant - a key figure in the Bonusgate probe - to perform a long list of political tasks. Among other duties, that consultant crafted fund-raising invitations and sent out blast e-mails to constituents in DeWeese's district in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. The documents, provided to The Inquirer by a defendant, also indicate that the Greene County Democrat exchanged campaign-related messages with his legislative staffers on state e-mail accounts. "I love it," DeWeese responded in September 2006 to a legislative aide of his who had just drafted a letter for a constituent to send to the local newspaper supporting the representative's campaign. "Great work," DeWeese wrote with 44 exclamation points when told by campaign operatives in April that party canvassers had knocked on nearly 600 doors. State law prohibits public money from being used for campaign-related purposes. DeWeese, who has served in the House for three decades and is now majority whip, declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he said it would be inappropriate to comment on individual documents. He called the e-mails "a desperate attempt by the criminal defendants to try their case in the media by cherry-picking documents they received in discovery and leaking them." The documents - more than 100 in all - were given to The Inquirer by Brett Cott, a former top aide to House Democrats who faces 42 corruption counts. As required by law, state prosecutors provided the documents to Cott and the other defendants as part of the discovery phase of the case. Cott was among a dozen caucus insiders charged in July in the first wave of Bonusgate indictments. The 12 are accused of carrying out a conspiracy to use millions in state resources and staff to further the campaigns of House Democrats. His attorney, Bryan Walk, said the documents "speak for themselves." Asked to elaborate, Walk said: "We're disappointed that Brett is charged for allegedly doing political work on state time when it appears that there were other people who did the same - or more things - on state time who weren't charged." DeWeese, in his prepared statement, said prosecutors had decided not to charge him "based on the totality of the evidence over a two-year period, which included thousands of e-mails and other documents that we turned over to them and the sworn testimony of hundreds of witnesses whom we urged to cooperate." Corbett has said that the fact that DeWeese was not charged does not indicate he is in the clear and that the investigation continues. Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley reiterated that last week, but declined to comment further.
Fall 2006 was a critical period for Democrats who had been toiling for a decade to reclaim the majority in the state House. The Bonusgate indictment alleges that they pulled out all the stops, even paying a computer consultant, Eric Buxton and his Harrisburg company, Govercom Strategies, hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars for political work. Prosecutors have argued that Buxton, son of a longtime state representative from Harrisburg, was paid with tax dollars for government services while in reality he only worked on campaigns. Cott and three others were charged with theft stemming from the Govercom arrangement. DeWeese was mentioned in the indictment, but only in passing. It noted that virtually all dealings with Buxton among House Democrats were done through the state e-mail system. DeWeese was one of the few exceptions, because he used his campaign account to correspond with Buxton. But his legislative aides who worked on his campaign did not. The documents Cott provided show that several of those aides were in regular contact with Buxton, using their state e-mail accounts to task the consultant with campaign work. Staffers Tom Andrews and Kevin Sidella had Buxton send fund-raising e-mails and news releases, update the campaign Web site, and help solve computer glitches. On Oct. 31, 2006, Andrews sent Buxton an e-mail telling him to drop everything and create a document with a photo of DeWeese receiving the NRA's defender of freedom award. "It will go to all 50th District MALES," Andrews, DeWeese's legislative press secretary, instructed Buxton. In some cases, such blast campaign e-mails backfired. "Do not send any more e-mails," constituent Karen Zgela wrote DeWeese, demanding a month before the November 2006 election that he take her off the e-mail list. "It is just a waste of taxpayers money." Sidella and Buxton are cooperating with prosecutors under grants of immunity. Sidella left the state House to open a private consulting business in 2007 and was immediately hired to help guide DeWeese's campaign. In an interview last week, Andrews said he took time off from his state job to help DeWeese's campaign. Asked to provide documentation, however, Andrews did not respond. He also said he didn't know how Buxton was being paid. State records show the DeWeese reelection campaign paid Buxton's firm only $530 in 2006 - $500 to buy a database and $30 for a domain name - even though the e-mails suggest he did a lot more work than that. For most of 2006, Buxton was paid $16,875 monthly under a state contract with House Democrats. Buxton's attorney, Ed Spreha, declined to comment. Nick Rodriguez-Cayro, Sidella's attorney, said his client had cooperated fully with the probe. "Let me make it clear: He was an employee - not a manager - who followed the directions he was given by his supervisors," he said of Sidella. Asked who those supervisors were, Rodriguez-Cayro said DeWeese and his former chief of staff.
Other documents in the case that are now part of discovery show that DeWeese at times used his state e-mail account to respond directly to campaign-related matters. Unlike his penchant for loquacious floor speeches, DeWeese's e-mails are almost always pithy and to the point. In a December 2004 e-mail exchange, caucus research analyst Karen E. Steiner wrote DeWeese, "I can't thank you enough for the bonus for campaigning." To that, DeWeese replied, "UR welcome." Steiner received a $1,600 bonus that year. DeWeese has previously told reporters he did not recall writing that e-mail to Steiner and that other staffers sometimes responded for him using his e-mail account. DeWeese has said he didn't know of the government bonuses, with the exception of smaller ones given each Christmas. In another case, Mike Manzo, DeWeese's former chief of staff, asked his boss for approval to extend a state employment contract for an aide to a state representative from Allentown. Manzo, whom DeWeese fired and who is among the dozen charged, wrote in summer 2005 that the aide was "knocking on doors for our candidate" and that the state representative had donated $3,500 to the campaign arm of the caucus. DeWeese responded, simply: "OK."