HARRISBURG -- Citizen activist Gene Stilp said it doesn't make him happy to find out his suspicions were well-founded.
Mr. Stilp, head of Taxpayers and Ratepayers United, asked Attorney General Tom Corbett in late January 2007 to investigate whether nearly $4 million in taxpayer funds were paid out in 2005 and 2006 as "illegal bonuses for political campaign work.''
After 17 months of investigation, Mr. Corbett yesterday filed criminal charges against 12 people, including former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver County and current Rep. Sean Ramaley, D-Beaver, alleging that funds that Mr. Veon paid out and Mr. Ramaley received were illegal uses of taxpayer money.
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Mr. Stilp, who also was a major figure in the battle against the July 2005 legislative pay raises, called the whole illegal bonus situation "sad.''
"It's sad that public servants and staff have been caught up in this scandal,'' he said. "It's sad that they will suffer personal consequences. This is the first day of many more days where indictments will be handed out.''
Mr. Corbett didn't go that far, but he said several times at a news conference that "the investigation is continuing,'' leaving open the possibility of charges against more people.
"It's a sad day in Pennsylvania,'' Mr. Corbett said.
Gov. Ed Rendell was also dismayed by yesterday's charges. Mr. Veon had been one of his key Democratic allies in the House.
"I have known and worked with some of the individuals, and I understand that they and their families are going through a difficult time,'' the governor said in a statement.
But he said the charges "are serious and outline a course of conduct that is completely unacceptable.'' Such allegations "destroy public confidence in the General Assembly and its proceedings.''
He said the charges "accentuate the need for better internal management controls and continued reforms of the legislative process.''
Agreeing with that assessment was another citizen activist who fought the pay raise, Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA.
He said the General Assembly's secrecy surrounding the pay raises, followed by the secrecy surrounding the 2006 bonuses, demonstrate that a new constitutional convention is needed in 2009. The last such statewide meeting to change the constitution was held in 1968 and it's time to update the document, he said.
Even Steve Miskin, an aide to House Republican leader Sam Smith of Punxsutawney, called the charges filed by Republican Corbett "a dark day for Pennsylvania.''
Mr. Corbett rejected any notion of a political prosecution, even though everyone charged yesterday was a Democrat. He said he had prosecuted Republican township and borough officials in several counties for alleged wrongdoing.
He also said he had prosecuted and convicted former Rep. Jeff Habay, R-Shaler, in 2005, for doing what the Democrats were charged with -- using his taxpayer-paid legislative staff "for campaign and fundraising purposes.''
"That should have put legislative leaders and their staffs on notice that the attorney general's office and the courts take a stern view of such illegal activity,'' Mr. Corbett said.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254. First Published July 11, 2008 4:00 AM