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Pa. Legislature Rocked by Bonus Probe

Saturday, November 03, 2007

HARRISBURG, Pa. —  A Pennsylvania grand jury is investigating millions of dollars in bonuses awarded to state legislative staffers in a practice that could prove to be one of the most egregious examples in recent years of legislatures using tax dollars to pay for electioneering.

The use of state employees to perform campaign work at taxpayers' expense is a problem that good-government advocates say is endemic to state legislatures. At least every few years, related scandals erupt at statehouses around the country, showing how difficult the practice is to root out.

Over the past two years in Pennsylvania, Democratic and Republican leaders handed out nearly $4 million in bonuses to hundreds of legislative employees. The payouts, some topping $10,000, were distributed so quietly that many staffers' own supervisors were unaware of them.

Democratic and GOP leaders insist the bonuses were paid out only for legislative work.

But suspicions are running high that staffers were, in effect, being illegally paid for electioneering. Some of the largest windfalls went to top aides who were the most politically active and even took leaves of absence to campaign.

It also didn't help that a legislative leader sent out a letter to many of the recipients to keep quiet about their bonuses, and that House Democratic leaders have fought in sealed filings to the state Supreme Court to block questioning of their aides and review of their records.

The grand jury investigation, led by the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, is focusing on possible misapplication of public property and theft as well as violations of state ethics and election laws, a judge disclosed during a court fight over access to legislative records.

"It just sounds like a grand scheme to use state money to work on a campaign," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "If the Legislature saw non-legislative employees getting huge bonuses, they'd be holding hearings immediately."

In the past decade, at least four Pennsylvania lawmakers were found to have used aides or state equipment for electioneering. Similar scandals have occurred in Washington, Minnesota, Missouri and Florida, and more recently allegations were made in campaigns in Alaska and North Carolina.

It can be difficult to prove that government employees have done campaign work on the taxpayers' dime because the line between legislative work and campaigning can be blurry _ and because state employees typically are allowed to campaign on their own time.

In Wisconsin, a caucus scandal at the Legislature resulted in the criminal convictions of five high-ranking lawmakers after evidence showed that some legislative employees spent much of their time working to re-elect their bosses.

"It paralyzed state government for two years here," said Wisconsin Common Cause director Jay Heck. "It brought everything to a standstill."

A Florida state senator was convicted last year of using state employees to work on his campaign while on the state's clock. In Washington state in the early 1990s, both caucuses and some legislative employees were fined for the widespread practice of having caucus staffers campaign on state time.

The scandal in Pennsylvania began unfolding in January when it was revealed that more than 700 people, most of them working for House Democrats, had received bonuses the previous year and a total of nearly $4 million was handed out over 2005-06.

The Patriot-News of Harrisburg obtained a letter from House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, a Democrat from western Pennsylvania, telling recipients to keep quiet about the "extraordinary" bonuses because not everyone got one.

"I have seen in our internal investigations no evidence that behavior was illegal," DeWeese told The Associated Press. "But that's not for me to decide. That's for the attorney general and his team."

The investigation seems to have everyone in Pennsylvania's State Capitol holding their breath as witnesses are being dragged before the grand jury and both parties in the House have been hit with subpoenas.

In August, investigators seized 20 boxes of records from the House Democratic research office, touching off a separation-of-powers legal battle. On Thursday, a petition by the House Democrats seeking to block access to the records was denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Because the case is before a grand jury, where proceedings are secret, the filings before the Supreme Court have all been sealed.

Drew Crompton, a Senate Republican policy aide, took about three months of unpaid leave to work full time on former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year. He said his $19,000 bonus was for legislative work on such issues as tax policy and lobbyist regulation.

"You can't do political work on legislative time _ you just can't," Crompton said. "It violates the law, and we are aggressive in telling our employees that that can't occur."

Eighty of the House Democrats' 100 largest bonus recipients either donated campaign cash to or worked on the re-election campaigns of DeWeese, the former House whip or the Democratic campaign committee, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found.

Democrats took control of the Pennsylvania House by a single seat in January _ helped by a voter uprising over a huge legislative pay raise rushed through the General Assembly in the middle of one summer night in 2005, and later repealed.

Many of the 55 freshmen who took office this year campaigned on good-government platforms. With legislative primaries about six months way, state lawmakers are starting to worry that the bonus scandal will again put voters in a throw-the-bums-out mood.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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