Millions in public funds used for political gain, probe finds
July 11, 2008 8:00 AM
Bradley C Bower/Associated Press
Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, right, yesterday announces grand jury presentments in the bonusgate scandal investigation.
By Dennis B. Roddy and Tracie Mauriello Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HARRISBURG -- Grand jurors here and in Pittsburgh cataloged what they described as a culture of corruption that allowed former state Rep. Michael Veon, current Rep. Sean Ramaley and 10 current and former Democratic staffers to divert millions of dollars in state resources, including more than $1 million in illegal pay bonuses.
The jurors said Mr. Veon and the staff members conspired to arrange hefty year-end pay bonuses to House employees who worked on political campaigns over a three-year period, while Mr. Ramaley is accused of working full-time on his 2004 House campaign in Beaver County while drawing a taxpayer salary as a member of Mr. Veon's staff.
The findings ran from the political to the salacious.
It found that tax money was used to bump third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Carl Romanelli from the Pennsylvania ballot in 2004 and 2006. Grand jurors said state money was used to provide a no-work job to a high-ranking House aide's mistress.
State employees were routinely diverted from their jobs to provide political services and, in the case of Mr. Veon, to transport his motorcycles to South Dakota for his vacation and to provide dinners to members of Mr. Veon's informal basketball league.
"The theft of taxpayers' funds and resources was extensive," said state Attorney General Tom Corbett, who yesterday filed an array of charges against Mr. Veon, Mr. Ramaley and the others, while hinting at more to come.
"Let me make this perfectly clear: This is not the conclusion," he said at a news conference here.
Attorneys for Mr. Veon and Mr. Ramaley said their clients are innocent of wrongdoing.
In addition to Mr. Veon and Mr. Ramaley, charges were filed against:
• Michael L. Manzo, 39, former chief of staff to Majority Leader Bill DeWeese. Mr. Manzo is accused of conspiracy in connection with the bonus scandal, engineering ballot challenges using state workers and hiding a girlfriend on the state payroll in a phony state office above a cigar store on Pittsburgh's South Side.
• Jeff Foreman, 57, currently legal counsel to House Minority Whip Keith McCall. He is accused of participating in the bonus plot while chief of staff to Mr. Veon and of directing an ongoing, partisan political operation from inside Mr. Veon's Capitol office.
• Rachel Hursh Manzo, 27, an aide to state Rep. Todd Eachus and wife of Mr. Manzo. She is accused of organizing House employees to work on legislative campaigns on state time and doing so herself during Mr. Veon's unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2006.
• Scott V. Brubaker, 43, former director of administration for the House Democrats. He is accused of playing a key role in arranging the illegal bonuses, directing state workers to perform political tasks and helping to orchestrate challenges to opponents' petitions for ballot spots.
• Jennifer Brubaker, 36, who is married to Mr. Brubaker and who directs the House Democratic Office of Legislative Research, the scene of a search warrant execution last August. She is accused of directing legislative employees to do political work in her office, including opposition research.
• Brett W. Cott, 36, a top aide to Mr. Veon, who is accused of widespread corruption, including conspiracy in the bonus scandal and running an ongoing political operation out of Mr. Veon's state office. "Brett Cott's title on Veon's staff was policy analyst, but according to numerous witnesses he was hired because of his campaign skills and was one of the lead promoters of the culture of using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes," the grand jury said.
• Patrick J. Lavelle, 29, who the grand jury described as a full-time political operative in Mr. Veon's Harrisburg office who had no other duties beyond fund raising.
• Annamarie Peretta-Rosepink, 45, director of Mr. Veon's Beaver County district office. She is accused of directing state employees to work on an array of political campaigns, including those of state Rep. Thomas Tangretti and state Sen. Wayne Fontana, as well as for other Democratic candidates. She also is accused of roles in the Nader and Romanelli petition challenges.
• Stephen A.H. Keefer, 38, former director of information technology for the House Democrats. He is accused of directing state employees to work on political campaigns, using state equipment to design political materials and creating a special Leaders' Communications Office with public funds to transmit political messages.
• Earl J. Mosley, 53, former director of personnel for the House Democrats. Grand jurors said he helped arrange payment of the illegal bonuses, and obtained a bonus himself for campaign work.
Mr. Corbett yesterday pointedly declined to clear Mr. DeWeese, the House Democratic leader who was ostensibly in charge of the caucus.
"The investigation is continuing," was Mr. Corbett's only answer. Mr. DeWeese was widely known to have cooperated in the bonus probe.
In November, Mr. DeWeese fired Mr. Manzo, Scott Brubaker, Mr. Mosley and four others when their names turned up on e-mails discussing state bonuses in return for political work. His spokesman, Tom Andrews, said current House staff members charged yesterday had been suspended without pay and benefits.
Mr. DeWeese issued a statement calling the charges "an indictment of a culture that has existed in all four caucuses of the General Assembly for far too long."
Key testimony in the grand jury was provided by one of the major conspirators in the bonus plot -- former director of member services Eric Webb. Mr. Webb kept track of political hours worked by state employees, and created a series of spreadsheets to rate their political work with an eye toward additional state pay.
Among the more sensational charges were allegations that Mr. Manzo arranged the hiring of Angela Bertugli, with whom he had a sexual affair that began in the summer of 2004 in Harrisburg. Mr. Manzo declined comment.
Grand jurors said Mr. Manzo said he would use Mr. DeWeese's clout to get Miss Bertugli admitted to law school.
Prior to her admission, the grand jury said he installed Miss Bertugli in a state-paid office above a cigar store on Pittsburgh's South Side, where she had no actual legislative duties.
In January 2006, she was moved to a Downtown office in Pittsburgh but "continued to spend up to 70 percent of her paid time doing schoolwork or nothing" with the remaining 30 percent mostly spent on campaign-related tasks.
At Mr. Manzo's direction, the presentment declares, Miss Bertugli left the state payroll and spent two weeks working on the campaign of state Rep. Chelsa Wagner, but retained her state benefits.
The grand jury said the challenge to Mr. Nader, who sought a place on the Pennsylvania ballot in 2004 as a Green Party candidate for president, was essentially divided between Mr. Veon's Beaver Falls district office and his Capitol office in Harrisburg.
Mrs. Peretta-Rosepink, the Beaver Falls office manager, directed the Western Pennsylvania portion of the effort and Mr. Foreman and Mr. Manzo coordinated Harrisburg efforts.
More than 34,000 signatures were challenged and Mr. Nader was kept off the ballot. It was generally assumed at the time that Mr. Nader's presence on the ballot could siphon votes from Democratic nominee John Kerry.
Mr. Veon issued a congratulatory e-mail to staff on Oct. 13, 2004: "You have given John Kerry an even better opportunity to win this state," he wrote.
The grand jury identified 36 state employees who were involved in the Nader ballot challenge, 29 of whom received state bonuses for 2004.
Two years later, the same tactic was used to keep Carl Romanelli, a Green Party candidate, off the ballot for U.S. Senate.
"Brett Cott assumed the laboring oar in organizing and orchestrating the operation," the grand jury wrote.
Once again, Mr. Foreman assisted in directing the contribution of Mr. Veon's office staff "which worked day in and day out on the petitions, while being paid by the taxpayers."
Larry Otter, Mr. Romanelli's lawyer in the petition challenges, today said he was "sick" at the extent of state labor involved.
"God knows what was going on the behind the scenes to get Romanelli off the ballot. It's beyond outrageous. It's a subversion of democracy. It makes Pennsylvania's ballot access a joke," he said.
Eric Buxton, a former employee of the Caucus Information Technology Office, testified under a grant of immunity and said he developed a system to allow mass e-mail communications to distribute the caucus' message. He told the grand jury that he worked the arrangement with Mr. Manzo, Mr. Keefer and Mr. Veon.
"The stated purpose of the office was to relay legislative initiatives and achievements of the Caucus to the people of Pennsylvania by means of Web sites and e-mails. However, Buxton testified that it was very clear from the beginning that he, Veon, Manzo and Keefer intended to use this operation for campaign purposes," the grand jury said.
The caucus later spent $1.2 million of state funds to purchase e-mail addresses for the project.
Mr. Buxton testified that the first use of the system was in a 2005 special election in the 131st Legislative District, on behalf of Democrat Linda Minger.
He testified that he arranged to route the mails through a computer server in Michigan and label them as from the House Democratic Campaign Committee when in fact they were done using taxpayer resources.
Mr. Buxton also said he set up the House Democratic Campaign Committee Web site in 2004 while on the state payroll and later started his own company to distribute campaign e-mails that originated within the Capitol.
While Mr. DeWeese's signature appeared on those contracts, grand jurors said testimony showed Mr. DeWeese's signature was forged by a secretary at Mr. Manzo's direction.