HARRISBURG -- With a statehouse scandal still brewing over the use of taxpayer money and resources for campaign purposes, House Democrats are going to unusual lengths to appear squeaky-clean in the Nov. 4 general election.
Even as they try to cling to a 102-101 majority won two years ago, the Democrats are admonishing their legislative staffers, who have logged thousands of volunteer hours in previous campaigns, not to get involved in this one.
In years past, dozens of the most valued caucus staffers have gone off the state payroll but continued to receive taxpayer-funded health benefits while they dedicated themselves full-time to helping re-elect their bosses. Others remained on the state payroll while on the campaign trail for weeks on end, election records show.
Not this fall.
The caucus has fundamentally restructured its political operation as a result of a corruption scandal that centered around accusations that legislative leaders gave millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bonuses to staffers as veiled compensation for campaign work, which would be illegal.
"I've made it my policy not to have any employees either come out of service from the caucus to work on a campaign, and I prefer House employees not participate at all in this election cycle," said the House Democratic Campaign Committee's chairman, Rep. Todd Eachus of Luzerne. "It's not a written rule, but I'm pretty sure my request has been honored by all the campaigns HDCC oversees."
That includes campaigns of all Democratic incumbents except Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, who traditionally runs his own campaigns.
Mr. DeWeese, too, is making less use of staffers for political work than in years past.
In the 2006 election, his campaign committee reimbursed 39 state employees for expenses they incurred while working on his re-election.
Reports filed so far this year show his campaign has reimbursed just six employees for campaign-related expenses totaling $3,879. For the same time period in the last election, reimbursements to employees totaled $19,265.
"The obvious political atmospherics [caused by the corruption investigation] are such that many staff members who historically volunteered to work nights and weekends on campaigns are more reluctant. However, the hard-charging nucleus of our team still manages, from time to time, to put their shoulder to the wheel," Mr. DeWeese said.
In campaign records of other Democratic incumbents, there is little to no evidence that any staffers ran phone banks, arranged fundraisers, produced campaign literature or performed other political work.
In 2006, such work was pervasive. The House Democratic Campaign Committee that year reimbursed 25 caucus employees for numerous campaign expenses. Some received dozens of reimbursements totaling several thousand dollars -- evidence of extensive political involvement, some of which state investigators later determined to have occurred while those employees should have been performing their state-paid jobs.
"There's no doubt that the recent challenges and difficulties have made everyone keen on the perspective that we need a watertight compartmentalization of [political and legislative] endeavors," Mr. DeWeese said.
Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said the changes are extreme but not surprising in light of the ongoing corruption investigation.
"These's a reaction when something like Bonusgate busts open, and the reaction isn't measured," he said. "You go to any length to make sure there's not an inkling for your opponent to challenge. The opponents on both sides are combing through each other's finances with a fine-toothed comb and it's keeping everyone really close to the tightest possible reading of the law. In some cases, it's probably overkill."
Mr. Eachus doesn't think so.
"We're going to play by the rules. We're not going to give any referee any opportunity to throw a yellow flag on the Democrats because of transgressions or perceived transgressions. We have to do things better than in the past," he said.
"There have got to be straightforward lines drawn between state employees and these campaigns. My counterparts on the Republican side don't get that," he said.
The House Republican caucus is continuing its longtime practice of allowing a handful of staffers to reduce their legislative hours and pay while they divide their time between state and campaign work. The Republican State Committee is compensating them for lost wages and contributing toward their health insurance, as it did in the 2006 election, campaign finance reports show.
"House Republicans have always separated legislative and campaign work. The public interest was always paramount," said Al Bowman, spokesman for the House Republican Campaign Committee.
Mr. Eachus said Republicans should have a stricter separation.
"At the end of the day, I just don't think the Republicans get it. House employees should be House employees and not participate in this election," Mr. Eachus said.
He acknowledged that his caucus didn't "get it" either until agents from the attorney general's office began showing up with search warrants and subpoenas.
"It's been a difficult and shocking year. When you see friends having legal trouble and the attorney general investigating, you have to take a look in the mirror and see how you're going to change," he said.
In large part, the change has been good, he said. It prompted the campaign committee to hire a full-time professional staff to replace hordes of short-term staff volunteers, some of whom had an ephemeral interest in politics.
"We fundamentally restructured the way the committee works," Mr. Eachus said. "We have professional campaign managers on the ground, young people with political experience in multiple campaigns who are well-equipped to help organize volunteers."
Tracie Mauriello can be reached at email@example.com or 1-717-787-2141.