State bonus investigation a step ahead of shredders
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HARRISBURG -- State investigators rushed to seize 20 boxes of records from House Democratic offices after a tip that they were about to be destroyed, and now the state attorney general is weighing possible obstruction-of-justice charges in an ongoing probe into the use of state employees for political work.
The boxes, some of which contained political materials, including extensive opposition research into possible Republican opponents, were taken during a surgically executed raid on the Democratic Office of Legislative Research in August.
At the time, according to records in the case, investigators told Judge Barry Feudale Jr. that they had received indications from a confidential informant that employees had been instructed to destroy the records, some of which dated to the early 1990s.
So concerned were agents of the attorney general that they met with Judge Feudale at 7:30 a.m. at the Northumberland County Airport to press their case for an expedited decision on a warrant.
Judge Feudale granted the warrant for the search and seizure. Agents, tipped off to the precise location of the boxes in a bottom-floor room at the K. Leroy Irvis Office Building adjacent to the Capitol, quickly seized the evidence.
Some of the details were in a decision Judge Feudale rendered this month, declaring the records were subject to seizure as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the use of state employees for political campaigns.
An affidavit attached to the search warrant request indicated that state investigators had been sent a picture of the boxes in the office, where they awaited shredding.
Sources close to the investigation said the order to destroy the records came from inside the House Democratic caucus, and that agents believed the action was imminent when they arranged the early-morning conference with Judge Feudale, who was en route to a hearing in Wayne County when they obtained the expedited order.
The same sources said Attorney General Tom Corbett now is deciding whether to pursue obstruction charges against those thought to be responsible for the order. Investigators do not believe the destruction would have been routine because some of the files in the boxes appear to have been placed there from outside the legislative research office.
More than a half-dozen employees of the research office have appeared before a statewide grand jury, and last week seven House caucus employees -- including several senior staff members -- were forced out of their jobs.
Investigators have yet to pin down who gave the order to destroy the records, which had been removed from the office files and gathered into cardboard boxes.
Investigators believe that some of the materials found inside the boxes had been transferred to the legislative research office from somewhere else inside the Capitol, and that the files were mixed in with other records slated for routine destruction.
One employee said an order went out from a supervisor to have the boxes removed from legislative research even as state investigators were issuing subpoenas for various documents.
Some documents, sources said, did not find their way into the legislative research files and were destroyed separately. Among items destroyed were computer hard drives as well as various records keeping track of employee hours, employees who worked in the office said.
A source close to Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, said that last week's dismissal of seven caucus employees followed an internal report that said at least one and possibly two of the employees had been involved in the destruction of documents.
A spokesman for Mr. Corbett declined to comment on the matter.
Mr. Corbett is investigating all four legislative caucuses to determine if public funds were used to subsidize campaigns, which would be illegal. So far, though, the investigation appears focused on the House Democratic caucus, which last year distributed $1.9 million in bonuses, more than the other three caucuses combined.
Many of the largest bonuses went to employees who were extensively involved in Democratic leaders' re-election campaigns last year. Some were away from their state jobs for months working on campaigns and received bonuses of as much as $25,065.