HARRISBURG -- The new state House majority leader says he'll stop paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for the former legislators and staff members charged in an ongoing probe into whether taxpayer money was used illegally for political campaign work.
Rep. Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, elected as the new House Democratic leader a month ago, said this includes a halt to legal fees for former Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver, who was the second-ranking House Democrat until he lost re-election in November 2006.
"The House Democratic caucus will not assume the legal fees of former Rep. Veon," Mr. Eachus said in a letter yesterday to Pittsburgh lawyer Robert Del Greco, who represents the once-powerful Mr. Veon.
In a phone interview yesterday, Mr. Eachus added that once House Democratic members or staffers are arrested or indicted, they "are no longer eligible for legal support" paid by the caucus.
Mr. Veon is the former Democratic whip and had been in the House since 1985. He was the only one of the 203 House members who refused to vote to repeal the controversial July 2005 legislative pay raise, and then was defeated in November 2006.
Attorney General Tom Corbett arrested him and 11 other Democrats in July on various charges related to the bonus scandal, an alleged scheme where taxpayer funds were used to pay bonuses for political campaign work.
Mr. Del Greco wrote to House leaders, including Mr. Eachus, on Dec. 11, saying: "We hereby make the following demands: that Mr. Veon be reimbursed for all legal expenses incurred to date; and that (House leaders) pledge to pay for all future attorney fees and related expenses consistent with its custom and practice of paying legal fees for House members and staff over the last two decades."
Mr. Del Greco didn't say how much Mr. Veon's legal fees amount to or whether any of them had been paid to date.
But he said that if "said demands" aren't met, "We will have no choice but to move forward ... seeking federal injunctive relief."
Go ahead, Mr. Eachus said in the phone interview. He said there is new leadership in the House, with Rep. Keith McCall, D-Carbon, as the new speaker and with himself replacing former Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, who was a close friend of Mr. Veon.
Mr. Eachus said that Mr. Del Greco's demand for payment was "ridiculous. It's a non-starter for me. Mike was no longer a member of our caucus when he was charged, and I have no responsibility to pay any legal costs for him. Our new House leadership will take this institution to greater accountability and try to restore the public's trust."
Mr. Eachus said that in his opinion, the caucus doesn't have to pay legal costs "for any member or staffer who has been indicted" in the Bonusgate investigation or any other legal matter.
He said he has conferred with special outside legal counsel, Christopher Casey of Philadelphia, on his decision. Mr. Casey is the brother of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. He told Mr. Del Greco to talk to Mr. Casey.
"It would be irresponsible to state taxpayers for the caucus to pay for the legal defense of anyone who's indicted. That's my policy," said Mr. Eachus. "The new House leadership will take this institution to greater accountability and try to restore public trust."
Mr. Eachus' decision to not pay future bonus-related legal fees does not, however, change the fact that about $2.5 million has already been spent for the legal defense of both Republicans and Democrats questioned by the attorney general, said Gene Stilp of Taxpayers and Ratepayers United. It isn't clear whether any of that amount went for Mr. Veon's fees.
Mr. Stilp has gone to court seeking to stop all state payments for anyone charged in the illegal bonus investigation. He said yesterday he also wants the money already paid out -- about $1.8 million for House Democrats and $750,000 for Republicans -- repaid to the treasury.
Mr. Stilp, one of the leaders of a citizens' protest against the 2005 pay raise, is also seeking to get the more than $3 million in bonus money repaid to the state.
Mr. Eachus' order "doesn't go far enough," contended Mr. Stilp. "This whole practice of (caucuses) paying (staffers') legal bills should stop. Staffers should pay their own legal bills and reimburse the state for the bonuses already paid."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Dec. 27, 2008) General Assembly staff members received more than $3 million in bonuses in 2005-06, money that may have been paid out for political campaign work instead of official state business. The amount was incorrect in this story as originally published Dec. 25, 2008 about legal fees being paid for some of the legislators and staffers involved.
Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.