Wednesday, April 29, 2009


By now it's pretty much accepted as gospel around the Capitol that Attorney General Tom Corbett's Bonusgate investigation is politically motivated to boost his gubernatorial campaign.

We here at CasablancaPA have a different theory: it was politically motivated to boost House Republicans.

Corbett's investigation of House Democrats began just a month after they assumed a slender one-seat majority. House Republicans, along with Senate Republicans, have contributed millions to Corbett's campaigns. And House Republicans desperately want the majority back.

Confronted with suspicious activity in all four legislative caucuses, Corbett in February 2007 launched an investigation against one caucus alone. The revisionist rationale usually offered in defense of the Democrats-only investigation is that Corbett believed the Democrats were destroying evidence. But Corbett didn't even hear such a rumor – false, as it turned out – until August. In fact, agents reportedly “rushed” to seize the records “after receiving a tip that they were about to be destroyed.” (Post-Gazette, 11/22/07) No one was charged with destroying evidence.

So much for that theory.

What did Corbett know in February of 2007? At the very least:

House Republicans gave out $350,000 in bonuses the previous two years (Tribune-Review, 2/2/07)

Senate Republicans gave out $919,000. Some of the largest bonuses of the four caucuses went to Senate Republican staffers who worked on campaigns. (Tribune-Review, 2/2/07)

Senate Republican political strategist Mike Long received a severance of $95,960 when he left the Senate payroll
(Tribune Review, 2/1/07)

House Republican campaign material was illegally stored on a government Web site funded by taxpayers. (Inquirer, 2/18/07)

A state representative's aide complained to Republican leadership in 2006 that she had been pressured to perform campaign work on state time in the run-up to the 2006 election. Lisa Deon's
"affidavit" outlining her complaints was widely circulated in September 2006 (Associated Press, 10/24/08)

Yet an investigation of House Democrats alone was launched with as much public fanfare as grand jury secrecy laws would allow – and possibly a bit more than that:

  • In April 2007, a “source with close ties to the law enforcement community" confirmed a grand jury had begun hearing witnesses. (Tribune Review, 4/12/07)
  • In August of 2007, "sources" told the Post-Gazette the grand jury was investigating "[former Rep. Mike] Veon, as well as a half-dozen other Democratic activists, state employees and former legislators." (Post-Gazette, 8/30/07)
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  • "As many as 100 people are expected to be called before the grand jury, a source close to the investigation told the Post-Gazette" in September 2007. (Post-Gazette, 9/21/07)
  • Sources close to the investigation” told the Post-Gazette that disgraced former legislator Frank LaGrotta “has given extensive details to the attorney general's office about inside dealings in the Democratic caucus.” (Post-Gazette, 10/7/07)
  • Sources with knowledge of the inquiry” told the Philadelphia Inquirer “the state attorney general has subpoenaed six more legislative staffers” (Inquirer, 10/14/07)
  • According to “several independent Capitol sources,” internal House Democratic Caucus documents were shredded in the summer of 2007. (Tribune-Review, 11/21/07) No charges related to destruction of evidence were filed.
  • The Morning Call reported in December 2007, without citing its initial source, that “more employees” of the House Democratic Caucus had been subpoenaed. A House attorney confirmed the report (Morning Call, 12/8/07)
  • The Tribune Review, without citing its source, reported in December 2007 that three House Democratic caucus employees were subpoenaed; one of them confirmed the report. (Tribune Review, 12/13/07)
  • Also in December 2007, e-mails that “are a key component in an investigation by Attorney General Tom Corbett” were “obtained” by the Post-Gazette (Post-Gazette, 12/16/07)
  • The Inquirer did not cite its initial source when it reported in March 2008 that the grand jury had issued a fresh round of subpoenas. “Spokesmen for Democrats and Republicans in the House confirmed” the tip. (Inquirer, 3/8/08)
  • Sources familiar with the probe said state investigators in recent weeks have issued subpoenas for records from the campaign committees of at least four current or former Democratic lawmakers.” (Patriot-News, 3/30/08)
  • "Sources close to the probe" in April 2008 gave the Post-Gazette a detailed account of what LaGrotta told investigators. (Post-Gazette. 4/11/08)
  • The Post-Gazette interviewed an intern who confirmed that he told the grand jury he'd shredded documents when he worked for the House Democrats. The newspaper did not disclose how it learned of the intern's testimony. In the same article, “sources close to the probe” said the shredding could complicate the investigation. (Post-Gazettte, 5/11/08)
  • A month later, the Post-Gazette interviewed four more grand jury witnesses, without disclosing how it learned of their testimony. (Post-Gazette, 6/8/08)
  • That same month, the Post-Gazette published more e-mails related to the investigation that it had “obtained” (Post-Gazette, 6/15/08 and 6/22/08)
  • The Tribune-Review did not cite any sources when it reported June 25, 2008, that the “first round of indictments,” focusing on House Democrats, was expected “within weeks.” (Tribune Review. 6/25/08)
  • In July 2008, “sources” told the Post-Gazette that “a statewide grand jury has returned a presentment recommending criminal charges against several former state aides as well as at least one high ranking former state legislator. (Post-Gazette, 7/10/08) Charges were filed the day the story was published.

  • Not only did July 10, 2008, mark the day Corbett filed charges in his then 17-month-old investigation, it also marked the end of such prolific anonymously-sourced reporting about grand jury activities. To this day, not a single witness to testify in a probe of Republicans has been identified or interviewed – even though nearly nine months have passed since Republican staffers reportedly were subpoenaed. In fact, no details about the probe have been reported since shortly after the election, in early December. (Post-Gazette, 12/4/08)

    That report, like nearly every account of Corbett's investigation of Republicans, followed closely on the heels of questions about Corbett's partisanship.

    The first to complain were State Democratic Party Chair T.J Rooney and Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, who later would challenge Corbett for his office. Their charges were dismissed as political posturing.

    But on October 22, 2007, a Capitolwire column suggested Corbett's political ties to the Republican legislature might inhibit Corbett's investigation. A Morning Call editorial the same day endorsed Morganelli's call for an independent prosecutor.

    The very next day, the Associated Press reported that House Republicans had at last received a subpoena for records. Newspapers around the state picked up the story for their Oct. 24 editions. Editorial writers in the following days nodded their approval. (Patriot News, 10/26/07; Herald Standard, 10/28/07; Beaver County Times, 10/29/07 ) It had, by then, been 10 months since Corbett announced his investigation. The House Republican Caucus had replaced all its computers months earlier.

    In January 2008, Morganelli announced his candidacy for Attorney General and accused Corbett of “conflicts of interest.” Shortly afterward, the news emerged that a subpoena for records had been issued to Senate Republicans (Patriot-News 2/13/08)

    In the frenzy over the July arrests, it didn't occur to anyone to remember Corbett's pledge until Aug. 3, 2008. The Patriot-News published an analysis headlined
    “Is state bonus probe partisan?” In a Tribune-Review article published three days later, Governor Ed Rendell urged Corbett to reveal by election day whether Republicans would be charged as well. The Chambersburg Public Opinion editorialized the next day that Rendell had a pretty good point.

    Lo and behold, on Aug. 8, both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review assured their readers that prosecutors had interviewed at least 20 House Republican staffers in the previous two weeks. Neither story identified any staffers by name. The Post-Gazette reported on Aug. 16 and the Tribune Review on Aug. 17 that “some” House Republican staff had been subpoenaed. Again, no names were mentioned.

    Corbett had to know he'd take some heat for scheduling a preliminary hearing for the Democratic defendants four weeks before the election, while simultaneously declaring a moratorium on indictments between Oct. 1 and Election Day to avoid influencing the election. The announcement was carefully couched with a reiteration in the Patriot-News on Sept. 10 that investigators indeed were interviewing unnamed House Republican staff, and a Sept. 11 Post-Gazette report that the grand jury was “investigating whether House Republicans used an expensive, tax-funded computer system for political purposes.”

    The Tribune Review, for its part, trumpeted a false rumor that unnamed Republicans could be indicted on unspecified charges that very week, before the Oct. 1 start of the moratorium. That story also included the rumor – founded – that Democrats would face charges related to the nonprofit Beaver Initiative for Growth.

    The hints about the Republican probe backfired: more than a dozen editorials across the state criticized Corbett's decision. The negative editorials, however, were by far worth the enormous flood of publicity of the preliminary hearing itself, and the absolute field day Republican House candidates had tarring their Democratic opponents with the “Bonusgate” scandal.

    The moratorium turned out to be a red herring. Nearly eight months later, Corbett has issued absolutely no indictments that conceivably could have influenced the election – only more charges against Mike Veon and a former top aide. And though Corbett's apparent gambit ultimately failed - Democrats increased their majority in the House - five Democratic incumbents were felled by Bonusgate smears.

    There's no doubt Corbett will use the results of the Bonusgate investigation in his campaign for governor, but his methods and his timing couldn't have worked out better for the House Republicans if he'd planned it that way.


    bobguzzardi said...

    It seems that Senate Republicans benefited from lack of attention on Bonusgate. I have been told that few, if any, Senate staffers have been interviewed or testified before Grand Jury. My logic is that Corbett needs this network to get elected so he does not poke the bee hive. The Senate Rs seem more egregious than House Rs. I did not see reference to Perzel-Preski campaign money issue.

    Great job with this site. Unfortunately, there is little attention to this issue in the southeast. Rs are quiet because any activist, like me, thinks this is a partisan prosecution and that it is impossible that Republican leadership in both House and Senate were doing the same thing.

    Keep up the solid work.

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