HARRISBURG -- A coalition of watchdog groups yesterday urged House Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese to resign over developments this week in a state corruption probe.
Mr. DeWeese, of Waynesburg, said through his spokesman that he would not step down.
Attorney General Tom Corbett is investigating whether the House Democratic caucus made illegal payments to staffers, including bonuses for campaign work.
On Wednesday, a former member was charged with allegedly paying relatives for legislative work they didn't do.
Former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta, of Ellwood City, was accused of putting his sister and niece on the payroll as "ghost employees."
A day earlier, Mr. DeWeese forced out seven aides, including one who signed off on the LaGrotta hirings and others who ran re-election campaigns and helped distribute the $1.9 million in bonuses the caucus gave last year.
"Everybody this side of reality knows that Mr. DeWeese is not cleaning house. He's rearranging the furniture so he can stay on as head of the House," said a letter sent to House members by Gene Stilp of Taxpayers and Ratepayers United, Eric Epstein of rockthecapitol .org and Dennis Baylor of the Pennsylvania Accountability Project.
"If [Mr. DeWeese] doesn't resign, then you must execute swift and dispassionate judgment and remove him as majority leader."
In an interview yesterday with The Associated Press, Mr. DeWeese said that he acted to remove the seven caucus employees following a detailed review of documents that were about to be turned over to state investigators looking into the alleged use of state workers for campaign purposes.
Mr. DeWeese said the decision to ask for the resignation of the seven, including his chief of staff, was "an administrative decision, not a criminal justice decision. As such, my reasons may come out later but they might not.
"After reviewing material from Thursday through Monday with our attorneys, I determined that the continued employment of certain staff was untenable," Mr. DeWeese said in his first public remarks on the staff shake-up.
The state attorney general's office had requested that the records be turned over by Tuesday.
"Part of being a leader is making tough, sometimes gut-wrenching decisions," Mr. DeWeese said. "My decisive actions thus far in these difficult months prove that I am a leader."
Mr. DeWeese said his office provided state prosecutors with "virtually all" of the documents cited in a grand jury presentment used to charge Mr. LaGrotta on Wednesday.
Mr. LaGrotta lost his bid for re-election last year but returned to work for the Democratic caucus until last summer.
Gov. Ed Rendell, meanwhile, distanced himself from the controversy.
"I don't know enough about it," he told reporters yesterday. "I don't know the extent of [Mr. DeWeese's] involvement, if any, in all this."
Mr. Rendell acknowleged that the majority leader is ultimately responsible for his members and staffers.
"Bill will probably have some explaining to do to his caucus," he said.
Lawmakers appear to be looking for answers.
Allegheny County's 19-member delegation plans to meet Monday afternoon in the Harrisburg office of its chairman, Rep. Dan Frankel.
"A number of members would like to sit down and talk about what has transpired in the last week or so," said Mr. Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill.
It is possible that there could be discussion about whether Mr. DeWeese should continue as leader, but that isn't on the agenda, Mr. Frankel said.
Freshman Rep. Lisa Bennington, D-Morningside, said it was premature to ask him to step down.
"How do I know what he did or didn't do? If he's indicted, then there's something to talk about," said Ms. Bennington, who called Mr. DeWeese a strong leader.
"In the time I've known him, he has made all the right decisions at the crucial times," she said.
Ms. Bennington credited Mr. DeWeese with making government more accountable by pushing to enact stronger lobbying laws and by enabling freshmen legislators to make meaningful contributions.
Mr. Rendell, too, pointed to Mr. DeWeese's legislative contributions this year. He helped pass laws to fund transportation, contain health care costs and reduce hospital-acquired infections, the governor said.
Now, though, he said he is "very concerned" that the corruption investigation will distract Mr. DeWeese and other lawmakers from passing a statewide smoking ban, improving access to health care and controlling handgun sales.
"We have too much on the table to let this be a distraction," Mr. Rendell said.
Mr. Rendell, a Democrat, said Mr. DeWeese's caucus seems to be receiving disproportionate attention from the news media and from Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is investigating the distribution of bonuses by all four caucuses.
He pointed to Senate Republicans, who gave a $19,467 bonus to a top aide even though he spent at least three months off the state payroll so he could work on the failed gubernatorial campaign of Rendell rival Lynn Swann.
Drew Crompton "worked hard to ensure my defeat and got a significant bonus at the end of the year," Mr. Rendell said. "He should get a bonus from the Swann campaign maybe. That's the only place he should have gotten a bonus."
The office of Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, where Mr. Crompton now works, called the governor's comments a "shameless" attack.
Tracie Mauriello can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-2141.