HARRISBURG -- Legislative assistants in former state Rep. Mike Veon's Beaver Falls office did nothing but campaign work for weeks at a time while being paid by the state, House Democratic staffer Melissa Lewis testified this morning in Dauphin County Common Pleas Court.
The work included preparing challenges to 2004 presidential candidate Ralph Nader's nominating petitions. She described that effort as "massive and completely consuming," adding, "That's what we did all day long."
Staffers also ran phone banks, prepared mailings and campaigned door-to-door for candidates at all levels of government.
Ms. Lewis, now the caucus director of the Allegheny County delegation, was the first to testify in a preliminary hearing for defendants charged in a statewide corruption trial that was spurred by newspaper revelations that millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bonuses were distributed to staffers as veiled compensation for campaign work.
Ten of the defendants -- Mr. Veon and current and former House staffers -- waived their rights to the preliminary hearing, leaving only State Rep. Sean Ramaley, D-Economy, and Anna Marie Peretta-Rosepink, Mr. Veon's former district office director.
Attorneys for Mr. Veon and defendant Brett Cott, a former policy analyst, said they waived their rights because preliminary hearings have a low burden of proof and because they didn't want the hearings to affect the outcome of the presidential and statewide elections on Nov. 4.
"This is not the day, the hearing or the juncture to present a defense," said Mr. Veon's attorney, Robert Del Greco. Preliminary hearings are opportunities for defendants to have charges dismissed if the prosecution cannot present enough evidence to substantiate them.
The waivers raised suspicions that some of the defendants cut plea deals in exchange for testimony or cooperation.
"The question is, 'Who cut deals and who is left standing at the end of the day?' " Mr. Del Greco said. "I'm not saying that, but it certainly could make you think."
He said that concerns him because he believes his client is the major target of the prosecution.
Kevin Harley, spokesman for attorney general Tom Corbett, would not comment on whether any plea deals have been cut or whether Mr. Veon is the major target.
Bryan Walk, attorney for Mr. Cott, said his client has not taken a deal.
"A lot of people caught up in this shouldn't be caught up to this extent and people who are not caught up in this . . . probably should be," Mr. Walk said during a break in the proceedings.
Back in the courtroom, Ms. Lewis testified that she never saw Mr. Ramaley do legitimate legislative work, offer to do it or be asked to do it during the months their employment in Mr. Veon's district office overlapped. Instead, he spent his time working on his election campaign.
On cross-examination, Mr. Ramaley's attorney, Philip Ignelzi, tried to establish that Ms. Lewis's testimony was based on hearsay and that she may not have seen his client do legislative work because their desks were in different rooms in the office complex.
"You can't tell the court that Sean Ramaley never did any legislative work," Mr. Ignelzi said. "You don't know what he was doing."
"No, I'm only testifying to what I witnessed," she responded.
Another Democratic staffer based in Harrisburg testified that he often traveled to Western Pennsylvania to work on campaigns of Mr. Veon and others, and that his election-related travel expenses were normally charged to the state.
Mr. Cott and Mrs. Perretta-Rosepink coordinated the campaign work and Jeff Foreman, another former staffer charged in the case, instructed him to charge the expenses to taxpayer-funded accounts, Richard Pronesti testified.
The hearing is continuing today in Harrisburg and could last through the week.