Veon loss pays off for aides
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HARRISBURG -- At the close of a 22-year legislative career derailed by voter anger over a midnight pay raise, departing state Rep. Mike Veon last year dispensed payroll bonuses of nearly $80,000 in state funds to a dozen staff members at his district office in Beaver Falls, one of whom had spent only three months on the job.
The bonuses, which ranged from $250 to more than $20,000, were part of a nearly $2 million payroll bonus package that is now the subject of a state grand jury investigation into whether state money was used to pay for campaign work, which would be illegal.
Julie Jarbeck-Walko, wife of state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, had worked for Mr. Veon from 1998 until 2004, when she resigned her state job and began drawing on her pension. She was rehired by the Veon staff in late September of last year, and after three months was given a $5,000 bonus.
"I assumed the bonus was for my years of dedication and service," said Mrs. Jarbeck-Walko, who is now an aide to state Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, the majority caucus secretary.
She said her brief conversation with Mr. Veon left her with the impression that everyone in the district office who received such a bonus was being rewarded and compensated for a job well done..
"I assumed it was for our hard work and dedication and the fact that we had just lost our jobs," she said.
There is no evidence in campaign records that Mrs. Jarbeck-Walko was involved in Mr. Veon's campaign, but she was reimbursed for expenses related to her husband's. Most of her work for that campaign came before she joined the Veon staff.
She has worked for Mr. Dermody since January.
"She's a great employee. She knows the ropes in Harrisburg better than anybody," said Mr. Dermody, who noted that she had previously worked for the late state Rep. Joseph Petrarca Sr., D-Vandergrift, and for Mr. Walko, whom she later married, before moving on to Mr. Veon's office.
Meanwhile, another Veon staffer received more than double the amount of Mrs. Jarbeck-Walko's bonus. Chester Orelli, a staff aide, received $10,065 in payroll bonuses, despite being on leave from his state job from mid-March to June of last year.
Mr. Orelli spent those three months on the payroll of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which Mr. Veon oversaw. The committee was responsible for promoting Democratic legislative candidates.
"I was told by former state Rep. Mike Veon that the bonus given to me was for my hard work that I have done through the years," Mr. Orelli said in an e-mail response when reached at his current job at the district office of state Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Ellwood City. Mr. Gibbons unseated incumbent Frank LaGrotta, a longtime ally of Mr. Veon and House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg.
The largest bonus among staffers at the Beaver Falls office went to Mr. Veon's longtime chief aide Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink, who also is the former treasurer of Beaver Initiative for Growth, a Veon-backed economic development project that has received millions in state underwriting.
She was awarded $20,380 in extra pay.
Unlike other staffers in that office, Ms. Perretta-Rosepink showed extensive reimbursements for purchases she made on behalf of the Veon campaign during the spring and summer months of last year.
She did not leave the state payroll during the year.
Ms. Perretta-Rosepink did not respond to messages left at her home Thursday and Friday.
In all, 12 full-time Veon staffers and one intern received $79,215 in bonuses for their work in 2006, nearly twice as much as Senate Republicans distributed as bonuses caucuswide. Bonuses for the same Veon staffers in 2005, a non-election year totalled $1,130.
Genoria Burks Nesmith, another aide in the office, received $7,065 in bonuses. Reached at her home, she was at a loss to explain it.
"It was a happy surprise," she said. She said she never asked Mr. Veon the reason for the bonus.
Similarly, Dennis Pietrandrea, another aide in the Beaver Falls office, said it was his understanding that he was being given a $7,315 year-end bonus "due to the fact that I had been employed by Rep. Veon's office for over 20 years and that I was being rewarded for a stellar work record."
Mr. Pietrandrea's wife Teresa worked as a receptionist in the office in 2006 and received a parting bonus of $2,750.
Staff members questioned
Agents for Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett have interviewed a number of Veon staff members, both in Beaver County and Harrisburg, and some questions have focused on whether bonuses were paid in part to reward campaign work by state employees.
Some of the Veon staff participated in last year's campaign, but one of them, Mr. Pietrandrea, noted that self-interest also would have been a large factor in that effort.
"In this job I know that I had to campaign after hours so I will have a job. Mike lost, my job ended. That's the nature of the game," he said.
He said he felt no outside pressure to do the political work, adding: "But I can't answer it for anyone else."
Former Veon aides Janet Nero and Joanna M. Mangelli received bonuses of $7,065 each. Ms. Nero could not be reached. Ms. Mangelli, who called the money a Christmas bonus, declined to comment.
Mike Romigh, a former KDKA talk show host who also worked last year for the Beaver Initiative for Growth, received a $2,000 bonus. He could not be located for comment.
Other bonuses included $2,065 each for Veon aides Thomas Woodske and Paul O'Palka; $4,315 for John Milkovich, who oversaw Mr. Veon's Midland satellite office; $750 for an office intern and $1,315 for a part-time aide.
None of them could be reached for comment.
Speaking through his attorney, Mr. Veon declined to comment on the bonuses. He is currently a subject of the grand jury investigations in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.
Tom Andrews, spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, also declined to comment.
Jim Marshall, the Republican who defeated Mr. Veon in the 2006 general election, said state agents had asked him about any records he might have obtained in the transition, but that the Veon camp passed on no information.
He described the staff bonuses for the Beaver Falls office as surprising.
"I couldn't say if they deserved those bonuses or not. I was pretty surprised at what they made," Mr. Marshall said. He described Mrs. Perretta-Rosepink's 2006 salary as equivalent to four salaries for his current staff.
Her salary is not listed in the annual list of House employees provided by the House Chief Clerk's office, but Treasury Department records show her twice monthly paychecks were $1,946 after taxes and other deductions.
Ms. Perretta-Rosepink is known to have been summoned to the attorney general's office in Pittsburgh for questioning, while Mrs. Jarbeck-Walko said she was questioned by agents about her own bonus. Neither appears to be a target for prosecutors who seem to be focusing their attention on Mr. Veon and a handful of top aides in Harrisburg who received bonuses as high as $25,065.
An analysis by the Post-Gazette earlier this year found that of the 100 people who received the largest legislative bonuses, 80 had volunteered for or contributed to Democratic campaigns. Only three of the recipients of the smallest 100 bonuses were similarly involved in campaigns.
All together, House Democrats handed out $1.9 million in bonuses last year, four times as much as in 2005, a non-election year, and $700,000 more than the other three legislative caucuses combined. It was a crucial year for House Democrats who saw and took the opportunity to win majority status in the chamber for the first time in 12 years.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 13, 2007) This story as originally published in Nov. 11, 2007 editions about bonuses awarded to employees of former state Rep. Mike Veon said that Julie Jarbeck-Walko had once worked for state Rep. Joseph A. Petrarca. She had worked for the late state Rep. Joseph A. Petrarca Sr. of Vandergrift when he chaired the House Transportation Committee. He left office in December 1994. His son, Joseph A. Petrarca Jr., is the current representative in that district.
First Published November 11, 2007 12:00 am