HARRISBURG -- A trail of e-mail messages has surfaced suggesting that former House Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese may have known all along that tax dollars were being used to reward aides for work on political campaigns.
Mr. DeWeese maintains he knew nothing about the scheme to use state money to reward campaign work, which became the focus of an ongoing grand jury investigation that so far resulted in 12 arrests.
"I can't thank you enough for the bonus for campaigning. I am speechless as most of us are," research analyst Karen Steiner wrote in a December 2004 e-mail message to Mr. DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, and former House Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls. She received a $1,000 bonus that year, according to grand jury documents.
A short response, "UR welcome," came from Mr. DeWeese's account.
Mr. DeWeese's spokesman Tom Andrews now says his boss doesn't remember the e-mail message. Because it was sent just before the holidays, Mr. DeWeese would have assumed it was for "the usual small Christmas bonuses" that were as little as $65, he said. Mr. DeWeese receives a large volume of e-mail, some of which is handled by staff, Mr. Andrews said.
"At the time, responding kindly to one of many thank you's for a Christmas bonus would have been routine," Mr. Andrews said.
That doesn't explain the response to two other e-mail thank-you messages sent to Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Veon in August 2006.
Copies of those messages, along with those between Ms. Steiner and Mr. DeWeese, were provided as part of a discovery proceeding to Bryan Walk, an attorney representing Brett Cott. Mr. Cott is a former Democratic staffer who was charged with theft and conflict of interest for his role in the alleged bonus distribution scheme.
In one message, Mr. Cott writes, "Just got home and got my mail. Thanks for the generous bonus." The response that came from Mr. DeWeese's account read "U earned it." The bonus was $25,065.
In the other message, Rachel Manzo, another defendant in the bonus case, wrote, "I sincerely appreciate the recent, unexpected meritorious bonus." The response sent from Mr. DeWeese's account was "U bet!!" She received $15,185.
Sources close to the investigation say the Steiner e-mail was discovered in April or May of 2008 by a team of 18 lawyers retained by the Democratic caucus to hand-search of tens of thousands of e-mail messages sent to or from 51 caucus staffers as well as Mr. DeWeese and former state Rep. Chris King. Immediately after finding the Steiner e-mail message, those attorneys delivered it to prosecutors, the sources said.
Ms. Steiner has not been charged with any wrongdoing and remains on the caucus staff.
Neither Ms. Steiner nor Mrs. Manzo responded to messages left for them yesterday. Mr. Cott referred questions to his attorney, who did not return a phone call yesterday afternoon or evening.
Mr. Andrews said the e-mail messages were among tens of thousands of documents that the caucus turned over to prosecutors in the state Office of Attorney General.
"Prosecutors did not charge Rep. DeWeese. That's because of the overwhelming amount of evidence that he did not know of the political bonus scheme. Of the many dozens of e-mails that discussed the bonus program in advance, Bill DeWeese was not copied on any of them," Mr. Andrews said. "Prosecutors came to the same conclusion."
Mrs. Manzo's husband, Mike Manzo, has said that Mr. DeWeese did know.
Mr. Manzo is a defendant in the case and a former top Democratic aide. He testified at a preliminary hearing last year that Mr. DeWeese was aware that state money was being used to reward staffers for campaign work. That testimony was offered as part of a plea agreement.
Mr. Manzo also spent four hours before a state grand jury sitting in Pittsburgh shortly after the 2008 general election and, according to two sources, was asked about the Steiner e-mail as well as bonuses given to Mr. DeWeese's district staff since 2004. Questions also centered on work for Mr. DeWeese by Kevin Sidella, a former staff member who served as Mr. DeWeese's campaign treasurer and received a $20,185 bonus in 2006.
The caucus gave a total of $1.9 million in bonuses that year. Most of the largest checks went to staffers who were extensively involved in political campaigns of incumbents, including Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Veon.
Kevin Harley, spokesman for Attorney General Tom Corbett, declined to comment except to say that the investigation is ongoing. Mr. Corbett has said he expects more arrests in the case.
Meanwhile, Mr. DeWeese and former caucus attorney Bill Chadwick are fighting a separate legal battle to keep new Democratic House leaders out of legal files in the case. The two have cited attorney-client privilege and the need to protect staffers who provided information, but new Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Carbon, says the file is the property of the caucus, which paid Mr. Chadwick $1.3 million.
Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence Clark is considering referring the case to a mediator.