Bonusgate: How the statewide public corruption case unfolded
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When Democratic leaders in the state House awarded nearly $2 million in bonuses to staffers in 2007, Majority Leader Bill DeWeese asked the recipients to keep quiet about it.
They did not.
Word of the bonuses quickly leaked out, spawning initial outrage and eventually an investigation into illegal use of government funds for political purposes. In five years, it has resulted in 25 arrests and 21 convictions, including a jury's verdict on Monday that Mr. DeWeese was guilty of felony corruption. Three other lawmakers have been convicted and another awaits trial.
"This is the most sweeping investigation and criminal prosecution that we're aware of," said Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the state attorney general's office, noting that some of the most powerful figures in the Legislature were among those convicted.
"We prosecuted individuals who broke the law, who crossed the line, who used state resources, taxpayer resources for their own personal gain," he said. "We certainly feel it's had an impact. We've taken criminals off the streets and out of the General Assembly. If there wasn't a clear line before, this serves as a clear line to everyone."
From the very start there was overwhelming circumstantial evidence that the bonuses were an illegal reward to staffers who did campaign work for Mr. De-Weese, Democratic Whip Mike Veon -- who also was convicted in the case -- and other lawmakers.
On Feb. 11, 2007, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that 80 of the 100 staffers who got the biggest bonuses -- ranging from $5,700 to $28,000 -- had either donated money to or worked on the campaigns of Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Veon. By contrast, only three of the 111 staffers who got the smallest bonus, $65, were similarly involved in the campaigns.
Over several months, the Post-Gazette's review of thousands of pages of records of campaign expenditures turned up evidence that several staffers who got big bonuses were campaigning when they should have been working.
Now, five years later, one Bonusgate defendant, former Rep. Steve Stetler of York, awaits trial. Several who pleaded or were found guilty, including Mr. DeWeese and former House Speaker John Perzel, are awaiting sentencing.
Here's a review of the major milestones in the case, from the archives of the Post-Gazette.
-- Jon Schmitz
Feb. 2, 2007: State House bonuses stun Rendell; Democrats give in, list $1.9 million in payments to staff
Bowing to pressure, House Democrats release details of $1.9 million in bonuses paid to staffers in the previous year, an amount that Gov. Ed Rendell said astonished him. Legislative watchdog Gene Stilp asks the state attorney general, Tom Corbett, to investigate whether bonuses were illegally used to reward staffers for campaign work.
Feb. 11, 2007: How campaigns and bonuses intersect; 80 of the 100 biggest bonuses awarded Democratic staffers went to people who aided DeWeese, Veon campaign efforts
A Post-Gazette review unearths the first evidence that bonuses were linked to political activity. Mr. DeWeese denies any such link.
Aug. 30, 2007: Democratic offices searched; state investigators in Harrisburg execute warrant in probe of state employees being used in campaigns
A week earlier, agents from the state attorney general's office had raided the Democratic Office of Legislative Research, seizing 20 boxes of records. The attorney general's office confirms that it is investigating the Democratic research department.
Sept. 2, 2007: Campaign work tied to House bonuses; legislative staffers who left their jobs to work for party still received hefty boosts in salaries paid for by state
Seven employees of the research office spent large chunks of time away from their state jobs and off the state payroll to work on campaigns but still received bonuses of more than $5,000. One who spent nine months on campaign work and only three in her state job received a $9,565 bonus at taxpayer expense. Another spent seven months campaigning but still received a bonus of $12,565 in addition to a $31,070 salary, a Post-Gazette investigation found.
Sept. 13, 2007: Grand jury investigating state House pay bonuses; attorney general probing whether extra pay was tied to illegal activities that supported political campaigns
Several Democratic caucus members had been seen the day before, entering and leaving the room where grand jury testimony was being taken.
Oct. 21, 2007: Campaigning on state time; records indicate 45 staffers worked to elect Democrats while remaining on House payroll
The Post-Gazette's Tracie Mauriello reported that workers campaigned on state time. Brett Cott, recipient of one of the largest bonuses, spent 11 weeks straight in Beaver Falls working on Mr. Veon's re-election campaign while continuing to receive a state paycheck. At least 45 Democratic aides campaigned on weekdays, never left the state payroll and still received bonuses. Mr. Cott was convicted in March 2010 of conspiracy, theft of services and conflict of interest and sent to prison.
Nov. 22, 2007: Probe a step ahead of shredders
Records seized in the Aug. 23 raid had been slated for destruction even as state investigators were issuing subpoenas for various documents. A tip led prosecutors to seek an expedited warrant to search the office before the records were shredded. Employees were told to drill holes through computer hard drives to destroy traces of data tracking employee hours.
Dec. 16, 2007: Emails show how Dems tied bonus pay to campaign work
Email messages between House Democratic aides, obtained by the Post-Gazette, showed that bonus determinations were based on a spreadsheet that tracked campaign volunteer hours and ranked employees as "rock stars," "good" and "OK." Bonuses were assigned according to the rankings.
June 7, 2008: Politicos 'parked' in state office; Em-ployees say campaign workers given 'do nothing' jobs
Employees of the Democratic Legislative Research Office said the office did more campaign work than legitimate legislative business. One former employee told the Post-Gazette that the office was a "parking place" for political operatives until they were needed for election work.
July 10, 2008: 12 face charges in bonus scandal; jury names Veon ... says millions siphoned illegally
A grand jury charges 12 people connected with the House Democratic caucus, including Mr. Veon, accusing them of arranging illegal bonuses for campaign work and other offenses. Grand jurors said state money was used to provide a no-work job to high-ranking House aide Michael Manzo's mistress.
Sept. 12, 2008: Pa. House GOP's use of computer investigated
A month after reporting that House Republican staffers were being called before the grand jury, the Post-Gazette reveals that the probe centers on whether House Republicans used an expensive, tax-funded computer system for political purposes. Some would refer to this arm of the investigation as Computergate.
Oct. 8, 2008: Ex-aide implicates DeWeese on bonuses; Manzo testifies boss knew of campaign work
Mr. Manzo agrees to cooperate in the investigation and plead guilty. He testifies that he believes Mr. DeWeese was aware of the bonus scheme. Mr. DeWeese denies knowledge and says Mr. Manzo is a desperate former employee trying to save himself from a prison sentence.
June 28, 2009: Files prompt grand jury to look at DeWeese again
The Post-Gazette reports that a recently discovered box of files from a Capitol office, including campaign donation spreadsheets that appear to have been assembled on a state computer, has renewed prosecutors' focus on Mr. DeWeese. At the same time, the attorney general is reported to be investigating John Perzel of Philadelphia, a powerful Republican and former House speaker.
Nov. 13, 2009: Perzel, GOP aides charged in state probe; former House speaker accused in wide-ranging corruption investigation that started with the Democrats
A grand jury accused Mr. Perzel and nine others in a scheme that allegedly misrouted more than $10 million in state funds to political causes. Among the others charged is former Rep. Brett Feese of Lycoming County. The grand jury accused Mr. Perzel of politicizing virtually every aspect of his state office, using technology workers to develop political databases, deploying legislative workers assigned to district offices as campaign researchers and funding anonymous "robo-calls" to homes in the districts of fellow Republicans who defied him on a 2005 pay raise bill -- 82 criminal counts in all, ranging from conspiracy and theft to conflict-of-interest. It accused Mr. Feese and others of trying to stall and mislead investigators.
Dec. 11, 2009: Ramaley acquitted in corruption trial
The first Bonusgate trial ends with Rep. Sean Ramaley cleared of all charges.
Dec. 16, 2009: DeWeese, Stetler charged in state corruption probe
Mr. DeWeese and Mr. Stetler, a former eight-term legislator who was serving as state revenue secretary, are charged along with Sharon Rodavich, a longtime staffer in Mr. DeWeese's district office in Waynesburg. All are accused of misdirecting state resources, namely staff salaries and office time, toward Democratic campaigns in House elections. Mr. Stetler immediately resigns the Cabinet post.
Jan. 10, 2010: Seven plead guilty in Bonusgate
Seven House Democratic staffers are the first to plead guilty in the Bonusgate case, after charges were reduced in exchange for their testimony against others. They had conspired "to pay bonuses of legislative funds -- taxpayer money -- to legislative employees for political campaign work," prosecutor James Reeder says.
March 10, 2010: DeWeese takes the Fifth in Bonusgate jury trial; Veon lawyers say ex-House leader was culpable
At trial of Mr. Veon and three associates, Mr. DeWeese invokes his constitutional right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying.
March 23, 2010: Veon convicted; jury returns mixed verdicts for ex-legislator, 2 aides in Bonusgate corruption case
After seven-week trial, a Dauphin County Common Pleas Court jury found Mr. Veon guilty of 14 of 59 counts, including conflict of interest, theft by deception, theft of services and conspiracy. His former office manager, Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink, was guilty on five of 22 counts; and Mr. Cott on three of 42 charges. Stephen Keefer, former Democratic caucus director of information, was acquitted of all 16 counts that he faced.
May 22, 2010: First Bonusgate sentence a harsh one
Mr. Cott is sentenced to 21 to 60 months in prison, fined $11,000 and ordered to make restitution to the state of $50,000.
May 25, 2010: Jury charges Legislature 'utterly incapable' of reform; labels caucus system broken, of no tangible benefit
The Bonusgate grand jury issues unusual report calling for eliminating partisan caucuses, reducing bloated staff and even changing the kinds of constituent services handled in district offices, saying "the current operational structure and ingrained procedures of the Pennsylvania House Democratic and Republican caucuses are irretrievably broken and in desperate need of systemic change." Members said legislative employees spent "an enormous amount of time working on political campaigns when they were supposed to be performing their legislative duties." Judge Barry Feudale, supervisor of the grand jury, added a statement that jurors were "mad as hell" to hear from numerous witnesses that "no one's guilty because everybody does it."
June 19, 2010: Veon given 6-14 years; former Beaver County legislator sentenced for his role in the Bonusgate corruption scandal
Mr. Veon apologized and asked for mercy but got little of it from a Dauphin County judge, who sentenced him to state prison for six to 14 years for public corruption, fined him $37,000 and ordered him to pay $100,000 in restitution. After the sentence, Common Pleas Judge Richard Lewis ordered him handcuffed and sent to prison immediately.
Sept. 1, 2011: Apologetic Per- zel vows to help prosecution
After months of proclaiming his innocence, Mr. Perzel agrees to plead guilty, apologizes to state taxpayers and says he will cooperate with investigators. In return, prosecutors drop 74 of 82 charges, leaving him to admit guilt on eight charges related to conflict of interest, theft and conspiracy. He was accused of masterminding a scheme to spend millions in public funds on computer software primarily used for House GOP campaigns.
Nov. 9, 2011: Former legislator, aide found guilty of corruption; public funds bought campaign programs
Mr. Feese is found guilty by a Dauphin County jury on all charges for participating in a conspiracy to use public dollars to buy sophisticated computer programs that were used on political campaigns. Also guilty on all counts is Jill Seaman, Mr. Feese's onetime administrative assistant. Mr. Feese was sentenced by Judge Lewis to four to 12 years in prison, fined $25,000 and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution.
Feb. 7, 2012: DeWeese guilty of five felonies; jury finds Greene County lawmaker used staff for political ends; he vows to stay in office, seek re-election; sentencing April 24
First Published February 12, 2012 12:00 am