A insider's tale of Harrisburg's long, strange trip

The first book to emerge from Bonusgate: a novel about a chronically stoned Deadhead who battles government corruption. Stick with it ...

The first book to emerge from the Bonusgate scandal in Harrisburg is a novel about a chronically stoned Deadhead who battles government corruption in the company of his marijuana-loving cat and the ghost of Jerry Garcia.

What, you thought Pennsylvania politics couldn't get stranger?

"Random Notes From a Specific Deadhead,'' Terry Shaffer's self-published novel, is a work of fiction, its author stresses. Indeed, the principal legislator in this book represents the 204th District in the state House, and even America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature has managed only 203.

But Mr. Shaffer was an aide to former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta, the Ellwood City Democrat who pled guilty in 2008 to placing a couple of relatives on the payroll as ghost employees, and Mr. Shaffer got the prosecutorial ball rolling.

A friend of Mr. LaGrotta since childhood, Mr. Shaffer, 54, went to the state Attorney General's Office with evidence of corruption after Mr. LaGrotta was defeated in 2006 and Mr. Shaffer was without a job. He freely admits he probably never would have become any kind of reformer if he'd stayed employed, but it seems no coincidence that the legislative aide in his novel "felt the weight of the agony of hundreds of sleepless nights lifted from his weary, sagging shoulders'' when he made the call to prosecutors.

Fittingly enough, this been a long, strange trip for a man who looks as much like Jerry Garcia as a lanky man can. Mr. Shaffer has nearly shoulder-length hair, a gray beard, eyeglasses and a ready smile.

When we met at his Castle Shannon home Friday morning, I confessed I was only three-quarters of the way through his novel and had no love for the Grateful Dead. (My insufferable freshman roommate was a Deadhead so every time I hear "Uncle John's Band,'' I look for an exit or an open window.)

The first 40 pages of Mr. Shaffer's novel (available from Amazon) read like something from Kurt Vonnegut's wastebasket, with characters coming in from other dimensions, but once the narrative became more comfortably linear, getting into the grit of blue-collar Western Pennsylvania life, the author's wit is able to shine.

Take the way a shady character in the hazardous waste disposal business spread his influence through political action committees he created: "Progressives Against Taxes, Conservatives for Progress, PA Liberals for an Informed Electorate, PA Liberals for an Informed Citizenry, Liberals Against Waste. ... You can stick 'liberals' on anything now and never worry anyone else might already have it tied up.''

Mr. Shaffer depicts the legislative aide in the book as an extraordinarily gifted lover (a perk of being an author). He beds a corrupt state representative's wife, the personification of the public, he said, trading her integrity for mere access.

It's an often angry, always cynical R-rated book. Cynicism isn't always the equivalent of wisdom, but for Mr. Shaffer "the whole first draft was a venting process.''

"I thought you could work within a corrupt system and do good deeds,'' he said of his 15 years in state politics. Now, he believes, "if you're not doing anything to change that system, you're somehow failing.''

This book may never make a dime, but he lives modestly with his working wife, Kimberly, and writing gives him a reason to get up at 5 a.m. and work until noon. After a couple of years earning $500 a month doing research for Democracy Rising PA, his personal income is down to a state pension and early Social Security for his disability. He has Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disorder, a hereditary disease that impinges on the nerves of his lower body, and he can get around only with the help of braces.

He told me that after spending most of his working life being the mouthpiece for someone else, our interview was "the first time I never had to worry about articulating anyone's insight but my own.''

Readers should be warned against spending too much time looking for exact parallels between this story and the true one that went on in Lawrence County and across Pennsylvania. It's a work of fiction, mostly.

"The only thing true about this is that we have a corrupt system that needs to be changed."

books - brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-262-1947 First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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