Campaign work tied to House bonuses

Legislative staffers who left their jobs to work for party still received hefty boosts in salaries paid for by state

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HARRISBURG -- Erin L. Madison spent nine months doing campaign work last year, but her bosses say it was her three months of government work that earned her a $9,565 taxpayer-funded bonus.

Michele Borlinghaus spent four months on the campaign trail and still received a $15,065 bonus.

All together, Democrats handed out $1.9 million in bonuses last year, four times as much as they did in 2005, a non-election year.

The bonuses have been under scrutiny since they came to light in February, and now there is growing evidence the biggest payouts went to employees who spent considerable time working on campaigns instead of on their state jobs.

Both Ms. Madison and Ms. Borlinghaus work for the Democratic Office of Legislative Research, the same office that was raided Aug. 23 by agents from the state attorney general's office who are trying to determine whether taxpayer money was used to compensate employees for work on political campaigns, which would be illegal.

Agents took away roughly a dozen boxes of material they believe will demonstrate that the office was used for campaign politics rather than public policy research, for which it ostensibly exists.

Six other employees assigned to the same office also were away from their state jobs for months at a time in 2006 to work for the House Democratic Campaign Committee, a non-government organization created to assist Democratic candidates. All of them received bonuses of at least $7,500.

Seven House staffers from other offices also went on the campaign committee's payroll last year and received taxpayer-funded bonuses of $5,000 or more, the Post-Gazette found during a review of campaign finance reports.

In the election, Democrats seized control of the House for the first time in a dozen years. Democratic leaders set the size of the bonuses, often without the knowledge of the legislators for whom the staffers worked.

One of the largest bonuses went to Christopher Stets, a legislative assistant to House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene.

Mr. Stets was given a $12,565 bonus for his legislative work, even though campaign committee records show he spent more than seven months campaigning. His state salary is $31,070.

"The evidence seems to support the claims that tax money is being used to fund campaign work for incumbents," said Matt Brouillette, president of the government watchdog group Commonwealth Foundation.

DeWeese defends bonuses

That's not so, said William Sloan, chief counsel to the House Democratic caucus.

"Rep. DeWeese has indicated that legislative merit payments to House employees were based solely on legislative work," he wrote in an e-mail message Friday evening. "Anyone who was on a campaign payroll was being paid by that campaign for working on his or her own time."

Former Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver Falls, who is a target of the state investigation, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Post-Gazette attempted to reach the 15 staffers Thursday and Friday by telephone and e-mail. Only one responded.

Christopher King, who was a legislative assistant last year and is now a House member representing Bucks County, said his $5,000 bonus was for legislative work and was given to him before he declared his candidacy and took an unpaid leave of absence. Still, Mr. King returned the $5,000 to the state treasury because, he said, the bonuses had created a distraction that was unfair to constituents.

Of recipients of the 100 biggest bonuses, at least 80 volunteered for, worked for or contributed to political campaigns.

By contrast, out of 111 employees who received the minimum bonus, $65, only three were involved in the 2006 campaign.

Still, not all of the top bonus recipients worked on campaigns.

Miriam Fox, executive director of the House Appropriations Committee, for example, received the largest bonus, $28,137, and there has been no evidence or suggestion she was involved in any campaign activity or donated to any candidates.

Other top bonus recipients, though, spent months distributing campaign literature, organizing campaign events and compiling information to use against Republican opponents.

John Jones, the executive director of the campaign committee, said he believes all those committee staffers were on unpaid leave from their state jobs but he could not be certain because he does not have access to government payroll information.

"To the best of our knowledge everyone who worked for us was off state payroll and they received reimbursement from the campaign committee for the work they did for us," Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Sloane declined to verify that, and the office of House Chief Clerk Roger Nick would not provide access to payroll records.

The Post-Gazette has learned that agents for the attorney general's office have obtained those payroll records and plan to compare them with campaign committee records.

Mr Brouillette said the practice of moving workers back and forth from the state payroll to campaign payrolls was troubling because it blurs the line between politics and policy.

It's also a sign of government waste, said Tim Potts, co-founder of the watchdog group Democracy Rising PA.

"You have to question whether a person is needed on the public payroll if they can leave the job for months on end," he said.

Although Mr. DeWeese has defended bonuses as a useful management tool to improve productivity, he said his caucus would no longer award them because of controversy surrounding them.


Dennis Roddy and Jon Schmitz contributed to this report. Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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