HARRISBURG -- Subpoenaed Democratic House staffers will have to testify before a grand jury looking into whether bonuses they received were illegal compensation for campaign work.
The state Supreme Court on Tuesday denied petitions by Democratic leaders and seven staffers filed in an attempt to block the subpoenas.
Democratic leaders repeatedly have declined to comment on the investigation, except to say that taxpayer-funded bonuses were given for legitimate legislative work, not for campaign work which would be illegal.
The caucus gave $1.9 million in bonuses last year, four times as much as in 2005, a nonelection year, and $700,000 more than the other three legislative caucuses combined. Bonuses ranged from $65 to more than $28,000.
Last fall's election was a critical one for Democrats, who saw the opportunity to gain majority status in the House for the first time in 12 years, which they did.
With few exceptions, the largest bonuses went to employees who worked on or donated to campaigns, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found in a review of election documents.
Attorneys representing the seven employees named in the petitions did not return phone calls yesterday.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders this week have been trying to quell members' concerns about the investigation. On Tuesday, they held an hours-long discussion in caucus, where a handful of members asked questions.
"You always want to keep your members informed," said Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He declined to say what members were told because the discussion involved an ongoing investigation.
Grand jury proceedings are confidential and most court information on the case is sealed, according to the Supreme Court prothonotary's office.
Most Democratic House members are not concerned about the investigation because they are confident no wrongdoing occurred, Mr. Evans said.
State Attorney General Tom Corbett is looking into bonuses given by all four legislative caucuses -- one for each party in the House and the Senate -- but House Democrats appear to be under the most scrutiny. At least seven subpoenas have been issued to staffers and at least one search warrant has been executed on caucus offices.
Republicans, meanwhile, voluntarily provided documents including personnel records relevant to the investigation, said Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.
"We turned over a lot of information to the attorney general when he first made inquiries about it," he said. "I'm confident we didn't do anything wrong. We have a written policy prescribing when bonuses should be issued, and we followed that policy virtually 99 percent of the time."
Gov. Ed Rendell said Mr. Corbett is doing the right thing by looking at bonuses given in all four caucuses.
"It's important that this is not viewed as a Republican attorney general going after Democrats. It should be an attorney general -- who I think has done a sound job -- looking at this kind of abuse across the board," he said.
The grand jury meets one week a month.
Tracie Mauriello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-717-787-2141.