Democrats attempting to block state probe of bonuses
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HARRISBURG -- House Democratic leaders are trying to prevent caucus staffers from having to testify before a state grand jury investigating whether the almost $65,000 in bonuses the employees received last year was veiled compensation for campaign work, which would be illegal.
Attorneys for the House Democrats have filed appeals asking the state Supreme Court to intervene and "stay the proceedings," or block the subpoenas. Seven Democratic employees are named in the appeals, which are aimed at quashing subpoenas for them as well as for "any other employees of the House Democratic Caucus who have been subpoenaed to appear" before the grand jury.
The subpoenaed seven are Democratic research analysts David D. Bliss, Ryan L. Kline and William D. Minnick; research project managers Christa C. Kraber and Stephen A. Webb; Director of Legislative Research Jennifer K. Brubaker; and Charles W. Quinnan, executive director of the House Aging and Older Adult Services Committee.
No House officials involved in the grand jury probe or their lawyers have been willing to speak publicly about the grand jury investigation, and most of the documents in the case have been sealed.
"Under the secrecy provisions of the grand jury statute, we are prohibited from commenting," William Sloane, chief counsel for the Democratic caucus, said yesterday.
Tom Andrews, spokesman for House Democratic leader Bill DeWeese, and Robert Ridge of Thorp Reed & Armstrong, who represents Ms. Brubaker, Ms. Kraber and Mr. Quinnan, also refused to discuss the case.
Through a review of campaign finance receipts, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has determined the extent of campaign involvement of the staffers named in the appeals.
Mr. Bliss, recipient of a $15,185 bonus, was reimbursed $2,600 for expenses related to the campaign of Mike Veon, the former Democratic whip who was voted out last November and is now a lobbyist.
Mr. Webb, who received a $15,065 bonus, was extensively involved in Democratic campaigns last year. He worked for the House Democratic Campaign Committee full time from mid- August through the November general election. He also volunteered for the campaign committee in July, drove 495 miles on business for Mr. DeWeese's campaign committee and was reimbursed $645 for expenses related to the Veon campaign, receipts show. Campaign finance records show Mr. Webb contributed $100 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee and $100 to Mr. Veon's campaign.
Mr. Quinnan volunteered for the House Democratic Campaign Committee on several days last year and contributed $110 to that committee, $100 to Mr. Veon's campaign and $250 to Mr. DeWeese's. Hotel receipts show he was in Pittsburgh on campaign business from Nov. 3-7. Toll receipts show he was in the Chester County area, spending full days on campaign business, on Oct. 30, Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Mr. Quinnan received a $7,185 bonus.
Mr. Kline and Mr. Minnick received far less in bonuses -- $1,185 and $1,145, respectively. The Post-Gazette has been unable to find any evidence that either was involved in campaigns last year.
Similarly, no evidence has surfaced that Ms. Kraber worked on campaigns, but records show she contributed $100 to Mr. Veon and $100 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee last year. She received a $7,185 bonus.
Mrs. Brubaker, who received a $17,750 bonus, was not reimbursed directly for any campaign expenses but she contributed $250 to Mr. Veon, $500 to Mr. DeWeese and $500 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
As many as 100 people are expected to be called before the grand jury, a source close to the investigation told the Post-Gazette. Grand juries meet one week per month to hear testimony, view evidence and decide whether there is probable cause to file criminal charges. They meet secretly and testimony is sealed.
Democratic leaders have asked the Supreme Court to block the grand jury from hearing any more testimony in the case until after the court rules on whether to quash the subpoenas.
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 election year for Democrats, who saw the opportunity to gain majority status in the House for the first time since 1995.
Democratic leaders have repeatedly said that the bonuses were merited compensation for good legislative work.
All four caucuses have stopped giving out bonuses because of public criticism after newspapers reported that last year's bonuses were as much as $28,137.
State Attorney General Tom Corbett is investigating bonuses given by all caucuses, but the focus now appears to be on House Democrats. Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley refused yesterday to discuss it.
Investigators last month raided the Democratic Office of Legislative Research, which Mrs. Brubaker heads. They removed about a dozen boxes believed to contain evidence that campaign work was done out of that office, which is supposed to be used for constituent services. It is illegal for campaign work to be done in legislative offices, on state-owned equipment or by employees during the course of their taxpayer-funded work week.
First Published September 21, 2007 12:00 am