HARRISBURG -- E-mail messages exchanged by top aides in the Democratic caucus starting in 2004 make clear that taxpayer-funded bonuses were given to legislative employees for their work on election campaigns.
The messages, obtained by the Post-Gazette, are a key component in an investigation by Attorney General Tom Corbett into the bonuses and whether they constituted an illegal use of state money for political work.
In startlingly blunt language, a group of aides, at points working under the direction of then-House Minority Whip Michael Veon, D-Beaver, rated the political work of state employees, sometimes adjusting the amounts of the bonuses based on time they spent in the field or, in one instance, in getting presidential candidate Ralph Nader off the Pennsylvania ballot.
"Mainly, I based my decisions on the number of days people spent in the field," wrote Eric Webb, director of Democratic member services, in one of the e-mails, "but a few people were bumped up for extra efforts, like being a phone bank captain," or "helping with the Spanish phone bank."
The system that produced the pay bonus scandal now roiling the state Capitol took shape at least three years ago when a cadre of top House aides began tracking campaign hours put in by Democratic caucus employees and then tied them to taxpayer-funded salary bonuses.
The records obtained by the Post-Gazette show that in 2004 managers working inside the Democratic caucus based year-end payroll bonuses on time spent working political campaigns. A year later, the same group employed a spreadsheet that logged political work performed by the employees and used that data in deciding pay bonus amounts.
A trio of spreadsheets attached to an Aug. 31, 2005 e-mail by Mr. Webb, who kept track of volunteer hours, ranked caucus employees as "rock stars," "good," and "OK" and assigned bonuses according to the rankings. In another e-mail, dated Nov. 22, 2004, a House aide advised Mr. Veon that a list of year-end bonuses was based on "performance during session" and "Outside activities" which included election work that encompassed, "specials, general, Nader effort."
The "Nader effort" is an apparent reference to a Democratic project to challenge the ballot petitions of the independent presidential candidate, who they feared would peel away votes from Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry. Mr. Nader's ballots were later thrown out as a result of the petition challenge and the state Supreme Court later ordered Mr. Nader to pay the Democratic party's legal costs.
The e-mail messages also show apparent widespread use of the Democratic caucus employees, offices and computer systems for political work.
Most of the e-mails and spreadsheets were first uncovered by House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, of Waynesburg, who had delegated much of the day-to-day operation of the caucus to Mr. Veon. Mr. DeWeese, after accumulating information from state computers, provided thousands of e-mail exchanges, which are now at the core of the state attorney general's case.
None of the materials obtained by the Post-Gazette suggests that Mr. DeWeese was aware of the scheme. Mr. Veon did not respond to a message seeking comment.
After initially being told by staff that the bonuses were routine seniority and holiday awards, Mr. DeWeese said he discovered that the bonuses amounted to $1.9 million. He then ordered an internal inquiry, calling in William Chadwick, a former prosecutor, in March, prior to the announcement of a criminal probe by the attorney general.
Mr. Chadwick's in-house probe resulted in the accumulation of tens of thousands of e-mails that had been automatically archived but which most employees thought had been deleted long ago.
In all, 31,000 archived e-mails thought to have been deleted were later recovered.
The inquiry also found that virtually every e-mail regarding pay bonuses sent on the caucus computer system in 2006 had been erased, as had all record of Mr. Veon's e-mails. What investigators later uncovered were e-mails from 2004 and 2005 that included an outline of the scheme that suggested it had been ongoing for several years.
The Post-Gazette obtained copies of some 2006 e-mails -- most of them sent by Stephen Keefer, director of the Democratic House Information Technologies department which oversaw the computer system used by caucus members. They reflect the level of political activity apparently taking place inside the Capitol offices, a place where partisan campaigning is legally forbidden.
They begin with a Feb. 27 dispatch to information technologies employees pressing them to work for Mr. Veon's primary campaign. In subsequent e-mails, Mr. Keefer speaks of "locking myself in the office today" to focus on Veon duties, and one week before the primaries assures colleagues who can't reach him, "sorry folks, only one more week." Mr. Veon's political committee, in fact, sent blast e-mails into the caucus accounts pressing for volunteers to come forward and work on his campaign.
The deletion of the 2006 e-mails and attempted destruction of documents in the Democratic Office of Legislative Research are among matters under investigation by the attorney general.
While the e-mails focus entirely on what appears to be a Democratic caucus practice of using state funds to pay volunteers for political work, Mr. Corbett's office is also investigating complaints of similar activities in the Republican caucus.
On Nov. 13 Mr. DeWeese forced out seven top House Democratic aides, including his chief of staff, Michael Manzo. He acted after receiving information from Mr. Chadwick, the Washington attorney and security consultant he had hired months earlier.
Mr. Manzo has denied any wrongdoing in the bonus arrangement. Both he and Scott Brubaker, the director of staffing and administration for the Democratic caucus, appeared for a 90-minute meeting in February with Mr. Corbett and several deputy attorneys general to explain how the bonuses were awarded. Both men later gave statements to the FBI, as well, according to a source inside the caucus.
Both Mr. Manzo and Mr. Brubaker have insisted that the bonuses were based on performance. Mr. Manzo last month also said the bonuses began as an effort to reward Mr. Veon's employees, who they expected to be out of work after their boss lost his bid for re-election in 2006.
"They've got e-mails from years ago. I'm not entirely sure what's in any of them," said Mr. Manzo, who said he was made aware of the e-mails on the day he and six other caucus members (including Mr. Brubaker) were forced out by Mr. DeWeese. He declined other comments.
Pittsburgh attorney Robert J. Ridge, who represents Mr. Brubaker, said his client had no comment. Mr. Webb did not respond to a card left at his house requesting that he contact the Post-Gazette, and his attorney, Matthew V. Haverstick of Phildelphia, did not return a phone call Friday.
Some caucus employees, drawn from a variety of departments, including the "floater" pool of employees assigned on a day-by-day basis to assist House members, have told investigators they were recruited to work various House campaigns.
State employees -- some of whom later testified before the statewide investigating grand jury -- say they were pressed into volunteering to help in various campaigns, including Mr. Veon's. In some instances, they said, word circulated among volunteers that they would be compensated for their work. The source of that money was never explained, and some believed checks were likely to come from the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
Several of the volunteers said they were instructed to forward a record of the hours they worked on campaigns to Mr. Webb.
Those volunteers said they later were surprised by the size and source of the bonuses.
One volunteer who did not get the word to forward his campaign hours to Mr. Webb's office said he never received a bonus.
A search of caucus e-mail accounts later yielded a copy of a spreadsheet program that tracked volunteer hours.
An e-mail Mr. Webb wrote to Mr. Manzo in August of 2005 suggests that Mr. Webb made the initial determination about payroll bonuses that year.
In an attached spreadsheet, Mr. Webb lists various employees and their accomplishments. The "rock stars" include more than a dozen House aides, including Mr. Manzo's wife, Rachel, Mr. Veon's top aide, Brett Cott, and Mr. Webb himself. Notations in column G, contain such comments as "went off payroll for 7 days," "helped with oppo research," "team captain, spent a month volunteering," "phone bank leader," and "volunteer coordinator."
The next day, Mr. Manzo forwarded the rankings to Mr. Brubaker in staffing and administration.
"We're thinking about 1K [$1,000] for the rock stars, 500 for the good, 250 for the OK. Thoughts?" Mr. Manzo writes.
"OK with me," Mr. Brubaker replied 13 minutes later. "The amounts aren't excessive, but they reinforce the point."
Mr. Brubaker suggests a category of "super rock stars -- eg. Those who spent more than two weeks in the field, particularly if they were burning their leave."
A bonus list for 2005 in fact shows the "rock star" category members receiving, in addition to standard seniority and Christmas bonuses, $1,000 each. A year earlier, Mr. Manzo forwarded to Mr. Veon, then the minority whip, a list of staff members to be given bonuses.
It was that e-mail, dated Nov. 22, 2004, in which Mr. Manzo advised Mr. Veon that the bonuses were based on both legislative performance and "outside activities" that included elections and the Nader effort.
"Let me know what you think. Would like to have it processed this week so our superstars can enjoy a brighter X Mas," Mr. Manzo wrote.
Eight minutes later, Mr. Veon replied.
"List looks good," the reply reads. "Want to add some of my DO [district office] staff. They did lots and lots extra nights and weekends on Nader project and all went to Butler many times last month ... ."
"Butler" was an apparent reference to a three-way race for an open House seat in which Mr. Veon's staff was involved in helping the Democratic nominee.
Mr. Manzo forwarded the list to Mr. Brubaker.
"We are gonna make some hard workers very pleased," he wrote.
The next day, Mr. Brubaker forwarded the bonus list to Earl J. Mosley, director of personnel for the House Democratic caucus. What followed was an awkward exchange in which Mr. Mosley, after being advised to process the bonuses "as soon as humanly possible," asked whether he was getting a bonus as well.
"Scott, any love coming this way for Joe and I?" Mr. Mosley replied, referring to himself and a staff aide in his office.
"I'll ask. Not my decision," Mr. Brubaker replied. "How many days did you guys do?"
After assuring Mr. Brubaker that he was not begrudging anyone else a bonus, Mr. Mosley referred to his own political work.
"Joe and I went to Montgomery County for four days (would have been 5 but went to the hospital). Lori did two days. We also went to Bloomsburg and did the phone bank for Bloomsburg as well as secured signatures for candidates. Trust me, I'm not upset because in my mind I thought that if I had gotten anything it might have been about $250."
After another exchange, Mr. Mosely suggests, "perhaps I just need to do more for the caucus."
Mr. Brubaker had something of the same opinion about his own political work, telling Mr. Manzo at one point that he thought one staff member, Jonathan L. Price, a policy analyst, deserved more money in his year-end bonus.
"26 days in the field along with oppo plus the $$. He's a star compared to me," Mr. Brubaker said, suggesting his own bonus was excessive.
"Good point on Price," Mr. Manzo replied. "Add another grand. You're staying put though!!!!"
"Will do. On both," Mr. Brubaker responded. "Thanks so much. Very generous."
"Enjoy," Mr. Manzo responded. "Get yourself that new truck!!!"