Former Democratic state Rep. Susan Laughlin bumped into her young replacement, Sean Ramaley, at a Lions Club picnic earlier this week. They chatted briefly about politics, even about former Minority Whip Mike Veon, and the criminal presentment bearing Mr. Veon's name that was thought to be imminent. Mr. Ramaley's wife and newborn were in tow.
Nothing appeared amiss.
"He seemed fine," said Mrs. Laughlin. "I was shocked."
Shocked, she meant, to learn that Mr. Ramaley's name was also on the paperwork recommending criminal charges for Mr. Veon and a host of top House Democratic operatives and aides in connection with the unfolding legislative bonus scandal -- public employees given taxpayer-funded bonuses for doing campaign work.
"I thought, 'What did he do wrong?'" Mrs. Laughlin said.
What he did wrong, according to the statewide grand jury, was hold a "no-work" job as an aide to Mr. Veon while he was running for state representative in 2004, in his bid to replace the retiring Mrs. Laughlin.
"The hiring of Sean Ramaley [to Mr. Veon's district office] was never intended to serve the constituents," the presentment said. Mr. Ramaley was to stay focused on his upcoming election, and he was soon being assisted by a Veon trustee, Stephen Webb.
They were both campaigning on the public's dime, making fund-raising phone calls by day and knocking on doors until dark, but they both had cover stories, the grand jury said. Mr. Webb would tell anyone who asked that he was in Beaver Falls to answer questions about the state's new construction code; Mr. Ramaley, a lawyer, was there to help constituents with legal issues.
Mr. Webb's activities were detailed in a grand jury presentment, but no charges were recommended against him.
Little-known outside of his district, Mr. Ramaley, 33, appears to be a casualty of a probe that began at the top, with Mr. Veon, and tunneled its way down into the House Democratic power structure. His campaign records were subpoenaed by the grand jury after former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta, sentenced to six months' house arrest in February, told prosecutors that Mr. Ramaley was one of three other legislators who received suspicious checks from Scranton businessman and casino applicant Louis DeNaples.
Mr. DeNaples faces perjury charges in a separate investigation.
Mr. Ramaley, who lives in Beaver County, represents parts of Beaver and Allegheny counties. Now in his second term, he's in the middle of a bid to switch chambers, running for the state Senate seat to be vacated by Gerald LaValle.
Joe Spanik, a Beaver County commissioner, was likewise running to replace Mr. LaValle, but he stepped aside before the spring primary, when Mr. Ramaley received the endorsement from party leaders.
Yesterday's news left him bewildered.
"I talked to a few Democrats. A lot of people were in disbelief. Nobody expected that," he said.
Few in Harrisburg expected it, either. While there have been plenty of leaks and rumors, Mr. Ramaley's name was not among those most often cited as the likely investigative targets.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette left a message for Mr. Ramaley on his cell phone, which wasn't returned.
The grand jury recommendation could hurt Democrats' chances of holding onto Mr. LaValle's seat, said county Commissioner Tony Amadio.
"I don't know what's going to happen here. We need a week or so to look at and see what the fallout's going to be," he said.
"He's the nominee right now. I don't think anything can change that, short of him removing his name" from the ballot.
Mr. Ramaley's November opponent in the 47th Senate District, Republican Elder Vogel Jr., issued a statement yesterday:
"When you maintain machine politicians, realistically, you can't expect anything but machine politics as the resulting product," he said. "Perhaps with this indictment, voters will now see the value in electing a person instead of a party, who will truly serve the people instead of themselves."
Mr. Ramaley's wife, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Stephie Ramaley, was involved in a homicide prosecution yesterday that ended in a mistrial. Court officials would not say why.
Bill Toland can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2625.