A political reformer's rise and fall
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In the Beaver Valley, where broken steel towns strain to recapture their glory days, Mike Veon walked as an icon of political benevolence, dispensing grants, arranging jobs, proving that, half a state away in Harrisburg, Western Pennsylvania still held awesome powers.
Now at the epicenter of a mushrooming scandal that pivots on whether that power was used to misappropriate millions in state dollars for partisan politics, Mr. Veon has become the archetype of political tragedy: A talented young reformer is sent to Harrisburg in a backlash against a legislative pay raise, rises to a pinnacle only to be undone by the things he came to change.
"It would be a crime if people were to think Mike Veon was all bad," said Gov. Ed Rendell, a longtime Veon friend. "He was imbued with a real passion to get things done for ordinary families."
As Democratic whip in the Pennsylvania House, Mr. Veon ostensibly was second-in-command to Majority Leader H. William DeWeese. But while Mr. DeWeese was the loquacious public face of the caucus, Mr. Veon quietly got things done.
Mr. Veon did not return repeated calls for comment for this story.
The dynamic of the DeWeese-Veon partnership was on display during the second inauguration of Gov. Tom Ridge in January 1999. The issue of new sports stadiums was still hot and Mr. DeWeese attended the swearing-in sporting cuff links commemorating Pirates great Roberto Clemente.
"Am I a stadium vote, or what?" he boasted.
Mr. Veon, on the other hand, spent the two days of festivities in his office and in the corridors, lining up votes for the bill to raise the state's debt ceiling to accommodate stadium construction borrowing.
"It was Bill DeWeese out front, but often it was Mike Veon who was doing the nitty-gritty on an issue," said Ron Cowell, a retired Democratic legislator from Allegheny County. "More than many legislators, Mike cared about and was smart about policy."
A solid student, Mr. Veon attended Allegheny College, where he majored in political science and exhibited some of the go-for-broke manner that would later land him in difficulty.
Mr. Veon and six other students were arrested following a fraternity prank in which they broke into a half dozen mobile homes in the Mercer County town of Hadley in March of 1977. Police charged them with burglary, theft, and criminal conspiracy for taking furniture, a range and an oil furnace from the buildings.
The charges were stepped down to summary citations after Mr. Veon and his companions paid $1,500 in restitution.
Graduating from Allegheny in 1979, Mr. Veon worked as a political consultant briefly and campaigned for state Rep. Joseph Kolter, who represented Beaver County's 14th legislative district and was seeking a seat in Congress.
Mr. Veon spent a year on the Kolter staff, all the while eyeing his new boss' old job.
In 1984, Mr. Veon, then 27, left the Kolter staff to launch his own political career. His target was Democrat Barry Alderette, a first-term incumbent who had succeeded Mr. Kolter.
Mr. Alderette's vulnerability was a single vote: He had supported a pay raise for House members.
In a multi-candidate primary, Mr. Veon edged the incumbent by several hundred votes and began a 22-year Harrisburg career.
By 1984, a crop of younger legislators had ensconced themselves in the Capitol, a legacy of voter backlash to the preceding decade of scandal that saw record numbers of politicians convicted of corruption.
Mr. Veon blended with this crowd -- tightening criminal sanctions for companies, making sexual harassment a crime, strengthening laws that permitted women to seek protection from abuse orders before they were victims of violence. The regulation that requires able-bodied mass transit passengers to vacate seats reserved for the disabled was a Veon bill. Always, though, it was organized labor, the state's unions, that found a champion in Mr. Veon.
"I thought he was the most talented of the whole crowd I worked with over there. He had the most potential. I expected him to be a superstar," said Tim Potts, a former House leadership employee who left disenchanted with what he saw as an inherently corrupt system and now heads Democracy Rising Pa., a watchdog organization.
In the cut-and-thrust of House politics, where power is its own ideology, Mr. Veon quickly allied himself with another self-styled reformer already in his sixth term, the 34-year-old Mr. DeWeese.
Mr. DeWeese, a former Marine lieutenant, had launched his own battles with the House elders, then led by James J. Manderino, a rotund and savvy machine pol from the Monongahela Valley.
Over a 10-year period, at times defying the seniority tradition, Mr. Veon tallied votes for Mr. DeWeese as the Greene County legislator climbed into the leadership, taking Mr. Veon with him.
"He was the brains behind that operation. It wasn't that he was just riding Bill DeWeese's coattails -- he was making those waves, too," said Tom Michlovic, then a House member from Allegheny County.
With Mr. DeWeese ensconced as the top Democrat in the House, a position he holds to this day, Mr. Veon rose through the leadership ranks, starting with the post of Democratic policy chairman. He flirted briefly with a run for lieutenant governor in 1994, but dropped it quickly.
He reached his pinnacle in 1999, when Ivan Itkin, the Democratic whip under Mr. DeWeese, retired. Mr. Veon won a three-way caucus race to take the whip position.
From that number two spot, Mr. Veon was able to oversee Democratic political strategy and amass power inside the Capitol.Serving constituents
At home, he stockpiled loyalty.
Nowhere was that hometown loyalty more evident than in the Veon district staff, a collection of people with blue-collar roots for whom constituent service was foremost. Residents of the district with problems as mundane as a late license plate and as formidable as chronic unemployment would travel in and out of the storefront office in Beaver Falls, with its grubby tile floor and stained ceiling.
Employees kept a microwave oven and refrigerator in the back and the staff took turns making lunch for each other to keep the front desk from going unstaffed as a steady stream of constituents moved through.
Sam Siple, a former press aide to Mr. Kolter, whose tenure overlapped slightly with Mr. Veon's on the Kolter staff, later did a study of the Beaver Falls office for a master's degree thesis. His inside tour of the Veon office left a large impression.
"It was run more like a family than a legislator's office," said Mr. Siple, who now oversees a private Christian academy in the North Hills. "Very close-knit, a genuine concern for one another among the staff as well as the constituents they served. There was a legitimate human service aspect to why they did what they did."
Mr. Veon's staff, said Mr. Siple, shared that enthusiasm.
"The people who worked in the office also loved politics. It's what I think also drew them in there. I think there was also the sense that the better they do their jobs that while that is certainly helpful to people, it's also helpful to Mike -- not just in getting him re-elected," said Mr. Siple.
There was, in that weeklong visit long ago, Mr. Siple said, a clear signal that the Pennsylvania Legislature was not Mr. Veon's end goal.
"I think there were great aspirations for Mike," Mr. Siple said. "I would throw out, 'Could you ever see Mike in the White House?' People weren't joking when they said 'Absolutely.'"
By the time of Mr. Siple's visit, Mr. Veon had established himself on two seemingly contradictory tracks: He was a reliable advocate of liberal causes ranging from a ban on replacement workers, a hike in the minimum wage, even abolition of school paddling; and he was going about it in the oldest of styles.
In 1993 he sponsored a bill to rescind the state's Hatch Act, which prohibited political work by various Pennsylvania employees protected by civil service.
At the same time, his broadening reach into the state budget enabled him to set up personal projects of his own in his district. Foremost among them was called the Beaver Initiative for Growth, which was designed as a clearinghouse for state grants that would in turn be dispensed for local causes, ranging from economic development to the removal of blighted buildings.
It was at BIG that Mr. Veon showed a penchant for tossing out the rules, according to its former executive director.
"Money was just sort of seen as a kind of arbitrary commodity that could be shifted and flowed wherever needed, regardless of what kind of stipulations were put on it," said John Gallo, whom Mr. Veon hired to run BIG between 1999 and 2003, when Mr. Gallo resigned, sensing an impending disaster.
Mr. Gallo applied for state grants for BIG, grants that he said carried specific purposes for the money.
"We would get the grant and there would be a lot of pressure put on from Mike to do something else with the money," Mr. Gallo said. "If I had money that was allocated for salaries or had money allocated for office costs. ... If another group or another one of Mike's organizations needed money, they would typically come and just take a chunk of it, kind of shift it over."
Conflicts became more frequent, especially between Mr. Gallo and Mr. Veon's top district office aide, Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink, who also held a position at BIG.
Expenditures would go out, he said, and staff would resist providing a receipt to justify the outlay.
"They would say, 'It was for an expense we incurred,' " Mr. Gallo said.
Mr. Veon later had BIG relocated in the same space as his district office and Mr. Gallo said roles began to blend uncomfortably. At some points, he said, he sensed that some of the money shifts could create legal problems because the grants were specifically earmarked for other purposes.
Later, he said, his control of the BIG checkbook was taken from him and assigned to Mrs. Perretta-Rosepink.
"I didn't want my name on grants if I wasn't going to be able to disseminate the money the way I wrote them," he said.
He resigned in 2003 and left Pennsylvania.
"I was just so sick of sort of everything. I thought, 'If that's the way our elected leaders are, I don't want to live in the state,'" Mr. Gallo said.
By the time Mr. Gallo left Mr. Veon's employ, the political string had just about run out. In a vote cast in the small hours of July 7, 2005, Mr. Veon joined colleagues in both chambers in passing a pay raise for themselves that ranged from 16 to 54 percent. In a state accustomed to midnight pay raises, the uproar, led by talk radio hosts and fueled by Internet bloggers, took the General Assembly by surprise.
After a series of votes, both Houses rescinded the bill Nov. 16. Mr. Veon remained the lone holdout, voting "no" on the repeal, saying he didn't want to be a hypocrite.
"This has been my style for 21 years and I was going to stand by my conviction," Mr. Veon explained later.Turned out by voters
That style was about to vanish from the Capitol. The next year, an old Veon loyalist, Jay Paisley, challenged him in a tightly fought Democratic primary. Investigators would later find that word was sent out from various managers in the Democratic caucus that employees were expected to report for duty. Dozens turned up on the streets of Beaver County, many using state-issued BlackBerry personal data devices.
Insiders who worked the campaign told of campaign meetings in the upstairs conference room of Mr. Veon's state-financed district office, and nights when campaign fliers were produced on the district office printer.
After a tight primary win, Mr. Veon was blindsided in a general election that turned Beaver's political tradition on its head, sending a Republican to Harrisburg.
Mr. Veon set up his own consulting firm with a former aide, Colleen Kopp. It was not to last.
As 2007 began, word emerged that millions of dollars in year-end bonuses had been issued to state employees. The largest recipients had worked on House campaigns.
Mr. Veon denied all.
"I want to be clear that every bonus every salary for the entire time I spent in the caucus and particularly the House Democratic leadership was done in a very proper and legal way," he told reporters prior to a Feb. 12, 2007, luncheon to retire his campaign debt.
He praised his old partner, Bill DeWeese, for handling the crisis.
What he did not know was that Mr. DeWeese, determined to clean out the caucus, had begun a steady flow of information and records to the office of Attorney General Tom Corbett. On a single day last November, Mr. DeWeese fired seven top caucus aides, including Brett Cott, Mr. Veon's top aide, as well as Steve Keefer, the director of the caucus Internet Technology department, a close Veon friend.
Some old friends seemed to run away. One who did not was Mr. Rendell, who still sees the good in Mike Veon, such as one of his last legislative achievements: a bill to push the state's minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.15.
"He was able to lead that through a Republican-controlled House," Mr. Rendell said. "And by the way, most of those people who got that raise are unregistered. It didn't help his politics."
First Published June 29, 2008 12:00 am