Monday, June 28, 2010


Cognitive dissonance.

It's reached epidemic proportions among the political press. It may even have affected a journalist you know.

For example, according to grand jury presentments, the House Republicans' alleged scheme to divert millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to political activity supposedly began just after the 2000 elections. The House Democrats' alleged plot to reward political volunteerism with taxpayer-funded bonuses supposedly kicked into gear during the 2004 election cycle.

Even according to the Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett, House Republicans had been unfairly and illegally kicking House Democrats' asses for four years before Mike Manzo and Scott Brubaker came up with an equally-illegal plan to help the Democrats level the playing field.

But even though the Democrats' alleged illegal scheme was much smaller in scale and was initiated four years later, it's somehow portrayed as having given the Democratic candidates a wildly unfair advantage over Republican candidates.

Witness the Post-Gazette's hilariously melodramatic (and shockingly misleading) account of plucky underdog Jim Marshall, whose earnest supporters rolled meatballs and hand-addressed fund-raising letters from Marshall's home-based headquarters. Not a word did reporter Tracie Mauriello write - was she even aware? - of the blizzard of professionally-produced television ads, robo-calls and slick direct mail that swept through the district in the final weeks of the campaign, all funded through the state Republican committee.

Apparently Mauriello will believe anything she's told as long as it reflects poorly on Mike Veon. She didn't even bother to check Marshall's campaign finance reports, which reveal more than $150,000 in funding from the state party. And that's just the support that was legally reported. If Corbett's allegations against Perzel are true, a virtual army of taxpayer-funded House Republican staffers were using millions in taxpayer-funded resources to support Marshall and other Republican candidates.

If you want to try to set up a David vs. Goliath analogy, you kind of need someone to play the role of David, and there's no suitable candidate in this situation. It's not an "advantage" if both sides are cheating.

The Tribune-Review's Brad Bumsted chimes in, characterizing the bonus scheme - for which even he admits "Veon didn't write the script," as a direct result of Veon's "unquenched thirst for more power." Bumsted's been covering the legislature for a long time; he must know that when the bonus scheme which Veon didn't concoct was launched, the Democrats had virtually no power in the legislature. At that point, according to Corbett, the Democrats were being victimized by a multi-million-dollar taxpayer-funded Republican campaign blitzkrieg.

For that matter, Bumsted places responsibility for the scandal on Veon because Veon "signed off on it" as the "de facto leader of the House Democratic Caucus." But it was Bumsted himself who first revealed that the actual leader of the House Democratic Caucus - the only one who had the legal authority to disburse caucus funds - was well aware of the scheme. Yet somehow DeWeese never faced charges in connection with it, and Bumsted apparently has no problem with that?

How can you help combat cognitive dissonance among political reporters? Just a few seconds of critical thought a day could mean the difference between substantive analyzis and mindless rhetoric. Please, take the time to care.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


It must be witchcraft, the spell that Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett casts upon reporters during interviews that renders them incapable of recalling contradictory statements he's made in the past.

Again, today, in an interview with Pittsburgh's KDKA, Corbett yammered on about how he carries one phone for state work one phone for campaign work.

"I carry two Blackberries. I left one out in the car so it wouldn't go off [during the interview]. The other one is sitting over on the side table over there, and I can go back and forth between the two at any time."
For those of you keeping track, this back-and-forth, does-he-or-doesn't-he, why-can't-he-keep-his-story-straight ridiculousness started in September, with Corbett bragging to ABC27 News that he carries two cell phones:
"He says he has a separate BlackBerry for his campaign work and one for his 'work' work. Separation of government and campaigning is big with this attorney general." (Stop, you're killing us.)
But when ABC 27 confronted him with cell phone bills that showed calls between Corbett's sacred campaign-only phone and state workers on state phones during state time, he claimed, "It's easier to keep it on one."

Then why did you claim that you use two? (A journalist might have asked, if one could have been found.)

He had no defense, we remind you, for the hundreds of calls between those state workers (on state phones during state time), the state staff of Republican legislators (on state phones during state time), and the cell phones of his campaign staff. Not that he needs a defense, apparently, when no one dares to question anything he does.

In November, in response to a question from Associated Press reporter Mark Scolforo, Corbett again claimed he uses his "personal" cell phone (the one his campaign is paying for) for both state and campaign business, and he doesn't even know the number of his state-issued cell phone. (Again, no one bothered to ask why he changed his story.)

But he must have remembered the number by January, when he was back to bragging about his double-fisted technology. On WITF-FM on Jan. 7, Corbett said technology - "cell phones, BlackBerries" - allows him to simultaneously prosecute members of the legislature while seeking their support for his gubernatorial campaign. "I carry two, by the way," he said. (But he doesn't know the number of one of them, which he claims he never uses, except when he does.)

Then, in a February interview with the Patriot-News, Corbett's team went back to claiming he uses only one cell phone. "If anything, [Deputy Attorney General Marc Costanzo] said, Corbett is saving the taxpayers money by not using his state phone." (Remember? He doesn't even know the number!)

By now Corbett may have settled on sticking with the two-phones story, since it's been pointed out to him (you'd think he'd have known it before) that using his campaign-paid phone for anything other than campaigning is a violation of campaign finance and reporting laws.

Good thing for him nobody noticed. Or ever notices. Anything.

Friday, June 18, 2010


The Pennsylvania political establishment seemed nonplussed and even a bit bemused by Republican Congressional candidate Patrick Meehan's awkward attempt to link his opponent to the Bonusgate scandal.

Our response? Well, duh. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and Republican candidates for office in Pennsylvania gotta tie their opponents to Bonusgate. It's just the natural order.

The scandal's entire raison d'ĂȘtre is so Republican candidates could sputter with feigned outrage. Meehan just happens not to be very good at it.

We pointed this out more than a year ago. While attempts to link Democratic candidates to Bonusgate failed to regain control of the House for the Republicans, they did manage to knock off five Democratic candidates using Bonusgate smears.

Why mess with success?

Even better news for Republicans, Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett should be announcing even more indictments just in time for Election Day.

Democrats can't say they weren't warned, though. But their fear of being targeted by Corbett's investigation kept them silent as Corbett crafted the ultimate campaign issue.

And it's so efficient, too! It slices, it dices, it works for state House candidates, state Senate candidates, Congressional candidates, Gubernatorial candidates, and tough stains ordinary political scandals won't budge.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


We're not surprised by the halfhearted coverage of the hearing on a Bonusgate defendant's  motion for a modified sentence.

We are surprised, however, that the letters written by the jurors who acquitted the defendant of 39 criminal counts continue to be ignored.

We imagine its because the jurors' comments raise inconvenient questions for Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett, and we all know what happens when Corbett faces inconvenient questions.

The 800-pound gorilla in the courtroom: why did Corbett strike deals with the masterminds in order to secure testimony against "such a small part of the issue that he probably should not have been in that courtroom?"

Were you waiting for the Capitol press corps to ask? Silly!

At the risk Corbett will send the goon squad to the secret CasablancaPA bunker (deep in the catacombs under the Capitol), allow us to point out some inconvenient facts.

Long before Corbett struck any deals with the vast majority of his informants, and long before anyone was indicted, one defendant was on record calling Corbett's investigation a "witch hunt." Does anyone underestimate the impression that comment made on the notoriously thin-skinned Corbett eight months before the indictments? Before, in fact, most of the witnesses ever glimpsed a grand jury.

But wait, there's more. (You knew that, didn't you?) Corbett was obsessed with anonymous criticism (which he blamed on one particular defendent) long before he used a sentencing hearing as an excuse to subpoena Twitter for his critics' identities ... long before the defendant was acquitted of 93% of the charges against him .... long before Corbett started publicly attacking the defendant as an anonymous online critic ... and long before anyone agreed to a plea deal. (Really? Yes, really.)

Buried deep within the transcript of Corbett's six-and-an-half-hour deposition in Thomas Kimmett's whistleblower lawsuit is a glimpse into Corbett's long-running obsession with anonymous criticism.

Q: Do you have any idea who operates the e-mail Corbett Is Laughing At You?
A: Oh, I have some ideas, but I'm not going to go into it right now while the trial is going on, but it's one of the defendants (Ha! "I'm not going to say, but I'll just say it." How cagey!)
Q: Okay. This e-mail from, I'll just refer to it as Corbett Is Laughing at You for lack of further identification.
A: Um-hum.
Q: [Campaign manger] Brian Nutt got that from Joe Gertis, and then Brian Nutt forwarded it to Kevin Harley, William Ryan, Richard Sheetz and Annmarie Kaiser. Do you know who Richard Sheetz is?
A: Yes.
Q: Who is Richard Sheetz?
A: He's the head of my Criminal Division.
Q: Okay.
A: And I assume he forwarded it because letting us know what's out there concerning the investigation.
Q: He who forwarded it is Brian Nutt.
A: Right.
Q: He's sending it to these people like Bill Ryan, Kevin Harley, Richard Sheetz, Ms. Kaiser who didn't, who weren't paid members of the campaign.
A: No, they were members of the office.
Q: Right. Anyone other than Ms. Kaiser that you know of volunteer on the campaign?
A: Kevin would.
Q: Kevin was a volunteer on the campaign?
A: Kevin was a volunteer. I don't know that Bill really volunteered at all. He might've showed up at events or something. Rick, earlier today you asked me about people contributing. Rick and Bill more than likely contributed to the campaign. I don't know that they really did any volunteer work.
Q: Okay. You said your understanding is that Mr. Nutt would've forwarded this because it had to do with the then on-going investigation.
A: That's right. Somebody really doesn't like me, do they?
Q: I'm betting based on your position it's more than one person out there.
A: Oh, yes. On both sides of the aisle.
Q: Do you have any understanding why Annmarie Kaiser would respond with, "not good?"
So, what we have here is an email conversation among Corbett campaign staff and state OAG staff concerning a criticism of Corbett that was disconcerting enough that at least one staffer labeled it "not good." (Do these really strike you as people who take criticism in stride?) And you have Corbett admitting that he believed the author of this disconcerting criticism was someone whom he prosecuted.

The email in question was widely distributed among legislators, staff and Capitol press in September 2008, weeks before Corbett's pre-election show-hearing, before plea deals were struck. Whatever do you suppose the Corbett campaign team found "not good" about it?

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Because Mike Manzo was such a stellar witness in the Bonusgate scandal - creating such a bad impression on the jury that he made the defendants sympathetic in comparison - Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett is using him to create an entirely new campaign issue.

What will our clever media corps dub this developing scandal? GamingGate? SlotsGate? LicenseGate? Can they get through this without using the -gate suffix? We're not optimistic.

We find it fascinating that Democrat Manzo appears to be the star witness in yet another grand jury investigation - particularly if Corbett is, as rumors indicate, investigating events that occurred when Republicans controlled both legislative chambers. As with the Bonusgate investigation, Corbett will find it necessary to sacrifice a token Republican or two for the appearance of non-partisanship. But we won't be surprised if he finds a way to lay whatever impropriety he manages to conjure squarely at the feet of the then-minority Democrats.

The timing of the leak published in the Morning Call today fits perfectly the Bonusgate pattern. Look for indictments in midsummer, in order to allow for a three-ring-circus of a preliminary hearing just weeks before Election Day. Then, hilariously, Corbett will solemnly declare a moratorium on further arrests before Election Day, and the press will pee in its collective pants over his magnanimous gesture.

As for us, we just can't wait to see what embarrasing story Manzo comes up with the next time he gets caught in a lie on the witness stand.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Taken together, the message of the grand jury that issued a campaign document on legislative reform for Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett, and of the jurors who acquitted Team Veon of most of the charges against them, is this:

Corbett could have indicted almost anyone in the legislature, and chose to indict someone who "was such a small part of the issue that he probably should not even have been in that courtroom."

As usual, the eternally unanswered question is: why?

Reporters who covered the grand jury report on reform - an improper use of the grand jury, by the way - delighted in relating Judge Barry Fuedale's observation that grand jurors were "mad as hell" to hear from numerous witnesses that "no one's guilty because everybody does it."

These same reporters fail to point out that even though "everybody does it," Corbett's original Bonusgate indictments included only a single sitting legislator, who wasn't even a member of leadership.

“It struck me that the grand jury was sending a message to the attorney general that ‘We’re not really happy because everyone does this and why are you picking these people?’” ACLU legal director Vic Walczak told the Patriot-News.

Why, indeed?

Because of the typically shallow media coverage of all things Bonusgate, the general public knows only that "two jurors agree" that the first sentence handed down to a Bonusgate defendant was "extremely harsh."

But the letters that accompanied the defendant's motion to have his sentence reduced tell a different tale. Both letters indicated that the jury asked Judge Richard A. Lewis "for leniency to those we convicted." Why?

"...we stressed how much we felt that the defendants were a minimal part of the issue and that those who accepted pleas and immunity were more to blame," the juror wrote.

So, not only did Corbett indict someone who "probably should not have been in the courtroom," he struck deals with those who "were more to blame" in order to secure their testimony against him.

These are the conclusions of jurors who were spoon-fed nothing but specially-formulated Corbett Chow for weeks on end.

Again, the question is why? Attorney Bryan Walk said during a sentencing hearing for his client Brett Cott that he tried to talk to the Attorney General's Office about a deal, but the prosecutors refused. They offered deals to those who were "more to blame" in order to convict "a minimal part of the issue."

As we have allowed before, perhaps we are witnessing a sophisticated legal strategy that is beyond our feeble comprehension. Or perhaps Tom Corbett has led the most spectacularly inept prosecution in legal history. During the trial, Harrisburg lawyers repeatedly dropped by the Bonusgate courtroom to see if the rumors they were hearing about the case were true.

Who knows what would have happened if Corbett had offered Cott a deal? Perhaps he would have scored better than a 16% conviction rate. Perhaps not. But we'll never know, and we'll probably never know why.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


While the Twittersphere has been abuzz with outrage over Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett's use of a grand jury subpoena to unmask anonymous critics, legal experts have even graver concerns.
Questions regarding Corbett's motive still abounded, but it was his use of a grand jury for a purpose other than securing an indictment that proved even more chilling for some people. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania further described as "completely inappropriate" a cover letter that accompanied the subpoena sent to Twitter.

The cover letter, signed by the investigating grand jury's executive secretary, asked that Twitter not reveal the existence of the subpoena.

"It's more than chilling," said Vic Walczak, the ACLU's legal director. "If I'm not a constitutional lawyer, I'm not going to say 'boo' to anybody, even though I have a right to do so."

Very few of us are constitutional lawyers - or lawyers at all, a fact that Corbett's office relies upon as it drags people before a grand jury for any reason that strikes Corbett's whim.

Most people won't ignore a subpoena. (Most people who aren't cabinet officials.) Most people assume that a subpoena from the highest-ranking law official in the state is legitimate. Most people assume the questions they're being asked in a grand jury are in the furtherance of a legitimate investigative purpose.

Investigating grand juries are for investigating crimes. The jurors, not being lawyers, may not be expected to know this. But surely the esteemed Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania may be expected to know this.

Or not: "...deputy attorneys general the ACLU talked with during the Twitter affair had a reaction of, 'We do this all the time. What's the problem?'" Walczak told the Legal Intelligencer.

We do this all the time? What's the problem?

"I hope somebody is going to look into whether this is a legitimate use of law enforcement authority," said Sam Bayard, the assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Bayard clearly hasn't spent much time in Pennsylvania, where journalistic curiosity and political courage are in severely short supply.