Ex-Rep. LaGrotta charged in jobs scam
Share with others:
HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania Attorney General yesterday charged former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta with two felony counts for hiring his sister and niece as legislative assistants last year -- jobs prosecutors say involved little or no work, and back-dated job applications.
The charges grew out of a grand jury investigation based in Pittsburgh, but the probe widened earlier this year when Mr LaGrotta, 49, a Democrat from Ellwood City, Lawrence County, provided information in a broader probe into political corruption in the state Capitol.
Attorney General Tom Corbett said Mr. LaGrotta hired his sister, Ann Bartolomeo, 46, and niece, Alissa Lemmon, 24, both of Ellwood City, as "ghost" employees who were paid for do-nothing jobs. Mr. LaGrotta was charged with two felony counts of violating the state's conflict of interest law and the women were each charged with one count of false swearing for lying to the grand jury.
If convicted, Mr. LaGrotta could face a maximum of five years in jail and a $15,000 fine on each count. Ms. Bartolomeo and Ms. Lemmon each could face a maximum of two years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
"This is a case of a public servant abusing his position of trust and power to financially reward his family members at the taxpayers expense," Mr. Corbett said. "We allege that Frank LaGrotta hired his sister and niece on the state payroll and said they performed work that simply never existed."
Mr. LaGrotta previously has offered information to state agents investigating a scandal involving nearly $1.9 million in pay bonuses given to state House employees who worked on Democratic campaigns in 2006. He is thought to be cooperating with the probe and Wednesday's presentment and charges followed weeks of plea negotiations.
The charges filed against Mr. LaGrotta yesterday come a day after seven key House aides were fired as House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, sought to distance the Democratic leadership from the pay bonus scandal.
The presentment gave this narrative of the LaGrotta case:
Grand jurors said Mr. LaGrotta, after losing his race for renomination in 2006, put his sister, Ann Bartolomeo, on the state payroll as a legislative assistant assigned to his district office. Approval for the request was given, in part, retroactively, in a letter from Mr. DeWeese, who was at that time House Democratic caucus leader.
Mr. Corbett said Ms. Bartolomeo applied for a job as legislative assistant on June 5, 2006. But the grand jury found that Mr. LaGrotta claimed she had been working since Feb. 1 and as a result she received a lump-sum check of $19,329 effective June 20. She was authorized to receive a bi-weekly check of $1,932 beginning June 21, but Mr. LaGrotta notified the caucus that she would be leaving his office June 30.
She was paid for a full-time job for more than four months, but the grand jury found she averaged only 20.5 hours per week.
Mr. LaGrotta told investigators Ms. Bartolomeo was hired to sort, file and archive 50 boxes of papers from his 18 years in office. The grand jury alleged that no such boxes existed and that Ms. Bartolomeo was essentially a ghost employee and worked full-time as an elementary school teacher.
Mr. DeWeese said late yesterday he was "greatly saddened" by the charges against Mr. LaGrotta and that he had provided key documents, including incriminating e-mails, to prosecutors.
But Mr. DeWeese also insisted that a former caucus employee, who he did not name, had signed his name to the memo authorizing the retroactive hiring of Ms. Bartolomeo. Mr. DeWeese said he did not know Ms. Bartolomeo was Mr. LaGrotta's sister and said he had ordered new control measures be implemented, including a requirement on application forms that any "familial relationships to House members" be disclosed when someone applies for a job in the Democratic caucus.
"The caucus employee who signed my name to the memo authorizing the retroactive hiring of Ann Bartolomeo resigned from the caucus staff yesterday," said Mr. DeWeese.
Grand jurors said Mr. LaGrotta also hired his niece, Alissa Lemmon, starting in 1998, as an intern and later as a legislative assistant at his district office.
"At LaGrotta's request and with the approval of DeWeese, Lemmon was re-employed as a full-time legislative assistant on Sept. 12, 2005," the grand jury presentment states.
Ms. Lemmon left her state job on Jan. 3, 2006, to take a post as administrative assistant at the former Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She remained on the state payroll, grand jurors said, and received $2,262 as pay for two weeks after she left Mr. LaGrotta's office. Overall, the grand jury found she received $6,216 for work that she never performed.
In a series of e-mails on Jan. 18, 2006, grand jurors found Mr. LaGrotta explaining a state check Ms. Lemmon received after leaving state employment. Mr. LaGrotta later told investigators the exchange was an attempt at humor, an explanation the grand jury rejected.
"Did you ever figure out the paycheck thing?" Ms. Lemmon wrote her uncle.
"They kept you on benefits through Jan. 31 and mistakenly kept you on payroll. Just keep it. They don't want back," Mr. LaGrotta replied.
Ms. Lemmon: "Well, isn't that nice of them :)."
Mr. LaGrotta: "You may get one more too!"
Ms. Lemmon: "Isn't this illegal? Not that I'm complaining!!!"
Mr. LaGrotta: "Not illegal. Mistake. You can pay it back if you choose -- but no one here is asking that. Besides, it is like your severance pay."
Ms. Lemmon: "Eh -- works for me!!!!!"
Mr. LaGrotta later arranged for Mr. DeWeese to rehire Ms. Lemmon as a legislative assistant on Sept. 12 of last year. She later left caucus employment on Oct. 10. Mr. LaGrotta said she had been hired to do some of the same archival work for which her mother, Ms. Bartolomeo, had been retained. Overall, she was paid $6,216 in 2006.
Investigators from Mr. Corbett's office said they could find no evidence that work was performed or the materials existed.
Mr. LaGrotta, his sister and niece face arraignment tomorrow in Harrisburg.
First Published November 15, 2007 12:00 am