Thursday, September 29, 2011

"WE'RE DONE PLAYING WITH THESE GUYS"

Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala announced yesterday that he will issue subpoenas to Republican State Senate staff.  His frustration with the the Senate GOP regarding his investigation of State Senator Jane Orie was clear:
"Someone started deleting these documents about two weeks after the trial. We were notified by attorneys for the Senate caucus that documents were missing. We're done playing with these guys." (Tribune Review 9/29/11)
Especially notable about Zappala's announcement is that these are the very first subpoenas issued for testimony from Senate Republican staff, even though it's been nearly five years since then-Attorney General and Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett claimed he would investigate all four legislative caucuses and their alleged use of taxpayer resources for political campaign purposes.

There's no doubt these subpoenas will allow Zappala's investigators will uncover problems with Orie, but if they ask the right questions, then Mike Long, Drew Crompton, former Senator Bob Jubelirer and former Senator Chip Brightbill have much to fear.

Corbett and his Republican Attorney General successors have allowed the Republican State Senate Caucus to self-investigate and self-report any evidence of campaigning illegally by its members and staff. In fact, the only contact between the Office of Attorney General and the Senate GOP has been the two voluntary appearances of former General Counsel Stephen MacNett, one of the very Senate staff members who performed campaign work on the state's dime over his many years as an employee of that caucus.

Clearly, Corbett's tactic of allowing the Senate Republicans to investigate themselves has been an abject disaster, most clearly exhibited by its failure to uncover the rampant illegality occurring in Orie's offices. If they "missed" that, then it is highly likely they've "missed" Mike Long's well-documented campaign activity and the taxpayer-funded bonus Drew Crompton' received for working on Lynn Swann's 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

For too long, Corbett and the Office of Attorney General has been playing a cute little game of hide the sausage with the Senate Republican Caucus.  Well-deserved investigative scrutiny finally being is brought to bear by Zappala.  Subpoenas, testifying under oath, and the threat of perjury convictions tend to elicit the truth from even the most reluctant of witnesses.

Let's hope Zappala asks the questions of those under oath that Corbett and his successors have refused to ask for over five years.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

WILL SPEAKER SAM SMITH SEE HIS SHADOW?

The biggest news from the first day of what has been dubbed the "Computergate" trial wasn't any bombshell revelations in the opening arguments. Rather, it was the Tribune-Review's Brad Bumstead's revelation that House Speaker Sam Smith will testify.

 The pride of Punxsutawney risks perjuring himself if he continues asserting under oath on the stand he knew nothing about what was happening in the House Republican Caucus right under his nose. (Tribune Review 11/18/09)

Remember, Smith was incredulous about Democratic House Leader Bill DeWeese's contention that he knew nothing about the "bonusgate" scandal that unfolded under his watch:
“I think anything as big as that [bonus] program they had going, I think he [DeWeese] was aware of it. … As the Republican leader, I know that ultimately the buck stops with me, and I’m responsible for the actions, even if I really wasn’t. … As leader you’re aware of most things. Some minor details I don’t see that go on from day to day that go on in terms of operations. But I think anything as big as that program they had going, I think he was aware of it.” (Capitolwire, 11/18/09)
Now, Smith says he had no idea that the computer contracts he signed were for political purposes. It's simply not credible for Smith to say he knew nothing about the technology contracts he signed with GCR totaling nearly $6 million. (Grand Jury presentment pages 53 and 54)

Don't take our word for it. Here's what then-Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett's Grand Jury presentment had to say about the work GCR was doing for the House Republican Caucus:
  •  “The existence and use of GCR’s Candidate Connect was widespread and notorious.” (page 67
  •  “…it was clear and well known that the HRCC was not paying GCR for any of this work.” (page 73
In addition to GCR, Smith signed a technology contract with Aristotle (page 100) and the presentment said that "...the HRCC was known to be receiving the benefit of Aristotle's voter data without cost." (page 102)

In fact, an email Smith received was used in the presentment to illustrate the overtly political nature of the work being done by the technology contractors. (page 81)

Another technology contract that doesn't get as much attention as the GCR arrangement is that between Weiss Micromarketing Group and the House Republican Caucus:
“On June 16, 2004, Weiss came to Harrisburg and gave a presentation to Perzel, Smith, Tomaselli and possibly Preski and Feese. Weiss testified that presentation was essentially focused on whether the term “voter” could be substituted for “consumer” in order to market an issue or a candidate. He further testified that his potential work for the Caucus was clearly understood to be for both legislative and campaign purposes.” (page 129)
Yet another email to Smith is mentioned in the presentment to illustrate the blatantly political nature of the Weiss contract with the House Republican caucus:
“Weiss identified an email about these predictive election model projects The email involves Tomaselli, Bowman, Feese, Preski, Perzel, Seaman, Smith and Dull. It discusses one of the meetings Weiss had in New Orleans and specifically references building the model to predict the outcome of elections.” (page 130)
Plus, Smith's top aides were in most of these meetings according to the presentment.  Are we to believe Sheila Flickinger and Anthony Aliano said absolutely NOTHING about all the campaign work happening via these technology contracts, especially given that  their boss signed most of them?

Flickinger was a full-time "Special Projects Coordinator" for Smith in 2006, earning $58,539. She appears over and over in the Republican presentment as an insider who knew everything that was going on under Perzel's and Feese's watch at both the House Republican Campaign Committee and the Republican Caucus' Office of District Operations.

Smith knew these technology contracts were paying for political campaign activities using taxpayer dollars.  It is a mystery why Corbett went to all the trouble of including Smith in the presentment over and over and over while not indicting him.

It reminds us how he went out of his way to mention of Bill DeWeese's illegal use of a state contractor for political work, but never charged him for it. (Inquirer 4/6/09)  Is it perhaps a secret signal? A taunt of some kind?

Unlike Punxsutawney Phil, Smith wasn't asleep in a hole for months at a time while the caucus operated on cruise control. He heard everything the grand jury witnesses heard. Plus, Smith was physically in many of the meetings discussing the these technology contractors and their political applications. Finally, Smith received emails clearly detailing the political nature of the work being done by the contractors.

Without perjuring himself, we're not sure Smith can avoid the sunlight testifying under oath tends to cast on the truth.

Friday, September 23, 2011

WHY IS THIS MAN SMILING?


As the Feese/Preski/Seaman trial fast approaches, we here at CasablancaPA are reviewing the grand jury presentment from 2009. A few names are popping up that have us scratching our heads.

One in particular is Shannon Royer, the Deputy Secretary for External Affairs and Elections in the Department of State. For those not familiar with the DOS, he's the guy who oversees all the elections in Pennsylvania.

A too-often overlooked, yet substantial aspect of the charges against Feese/Preski/Seaman revolves around the rampant abuse of taxpayer resources through the House Republican Office of District Operations. This is how Corbett's grand jury described it:
"[District Operations] for at least the period from 2001-2006, and to a lesser extent after 2006, was virtually a wholly owned campaign subsidiary of the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC). This arrangement, which included the use of taxpayer money for campaign work performed by [District Operations] staffers, was organized, coordinated, and approved at the highest levels of the House Republican Caucus..." (Page 157, Grand Jury presentment 11/09)
Royer was a Regional Coordinator with the Office of District Operations during this entire period. Here's what the grand jury had to say about that position:
"...all but a handful of these staffers actually worked out of their homes across the state, not in the Capitol. The Caucus, in response to a number of Grand Jury subpoenas, has produced little to no documentation about what these coordinators did or how much time they actually spent doing legislative work during the time period which was the focus of the Grand Jury's investigation. That dearth of documentation regarding legislative work became understandable to the Grand Jury once the Grand Jury learned about what most of the Regional Coordinators and other [District Operations] staffers actually did while being paid by the taxpayers." (Page 158)
He's even mentioned by name within the grand jury presentment as participating in illegal activities on pages 164 and 165.

Furthermore, in 2006, Royer was a candidate for state representative while working as a Regional Coordinator. Remember when Royer's boss, Tom Corbett, charged someone with six felonies for running for office while employed by the House of Representatives?

Royer's apparent climb up the career ladder courtesy of Governor Corbett is particularly galling when you consider that Corbett arrested former State Represenative Sean Ramaley on charges that he used state resources inappropriately while running for state representative as a House Democratic Caucus employee. (Harrisburg Patriot-News 7/18/08)

How ironic that Corbett, the supposed scourge of political chicanery in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the Commonwealth's elections generally, would make such an important appointment even though he knew Royer had blatantly broken the laws governing the process Royer now oversees.

According to Deputy Attorney General Marc Costanzo, General Assembly employees should be "[sent] a loud and clear message that this kind of activity [illegal use of taxpayers funds for political campaigns] will not be tolerated, and people will pay for their crimes." (Post-Gazette 5/21/10)

Clearly, that's a lie.

Throughout the entire investigation Corbett selectively picked who to investigate and prosecute from among members and staff of the General Assembly who universally used taxpayer resources for political campaigns.

In fact, rather than being arrested, the vast majority were let off the hook. A select few were given plumb appointments -- just like Deputy Secretary Shannon Royer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

CRAVEN LIAR ACCIDENTALLY MAKES A GOOD POINT


Lord knows we don't agree with craven liar H. William DeWeese too often, but his rant to the Philadelphia Inquirer makes an excellent point we've trying to get across for nearly two years.

It is, as DeWeese whines, "a factual inaccuracy - and a sad testament to the standing of the Fourth Estate - to say that former Republican attorney general (and now Gov.) Tom Corbett charged [DeWeese] in connection with legislative bonuses. The record shows he clearly did not."

DeWeese, of course, would have you believe the fantasy that Corbett didn't charge him in connection with bonuses because DeWeese ("U R welcome") wasn't culpable. That is, of course, not true.

The "sad testament to the standing of the Fourth Estate" is not only that it keeps repeating the lie that DeWeese was charged in connection with bonuses, but that no one has bothered to investigate why the obviously culpable DeWeese was not so charged.

Keep in mind that the incriminating "U R welcome" email - along with dozens of other incriminating emails and documents - were not turned over until after months of legal wrangling with Corbett's office. It was only after DeWeese lost his bids both to exclude evidence seized under a search warrant and to quash subpoenas of House staffers that DeWeese finally negotiated to turn over to Corbett documents and emails that DeWeese himself selected.

Despite the evidence to be found among the documents DeWeese and his attorneys selected, even after DeWeese's chief of staff, Mike Manzo, testified in open court that DeWeese knew about the bonuses, and despite the testimony of DeWeese's executive assistant, Kat Manucci, that DeWeese approved awarding bonuses for political work, Corbett still declined to charge DeWeese with bonus-related crimes - as DeWeese himself wants us all to know.

He just maybe doesn't want us to know why.

DeWeese claims in his Inquirer rant that he cooperated with Corbett's investigation for "35 months" - a blatant and obvious lie. Counting backward from his early December 2009 indictment (on non-bonus-related charges) to the earliest possible moment his "negotiation" with Corbett could have occurred, in late October of 2007, gives us only 25 months. Again, no one ever bothers to contradict DeWeese when he claims he cooperated with Corbett since "Day One," as if all those months of legal obstructionism never happened.

Finally, DeWeese claims that "Corbett surely knew that I would be one of his premier antagonists on the House floor," but from the moment of DeWeese's late-October or early-November 2007 "negotiation" with Corbett until shortly before DeWeese's December 2009 indictment (on non-bonus-related charges), DeWeese never uttered a single word of antagonism against Corbett, on the House floor or anywhere else. On the contrary, he told KDKA in February 2008, "I have no doubt that this investigation will be fair." He called the day his colleague Mike Veon and several staffers were indicted "one of the best f***ing days of my life."

Ultimately, DeWeese's quest for the media to make a distinction between bonus-related charges and others is probably futile. Brad Bumsted over at the Tribune-Review keeps insisting "ten people were convicted in connection with a $1.4 million bonus scam among House Democrats," when he knows full well that two of those people were actually acquitted (that would be the opposite of convicted) of all bonus-related charges and one of them never even was charged with any bonus offenses. There were 322 charges filed against the original 12 "Bonusgate" defendants, and only 99 of them had anything to do with bonuses. (And, only 50 - less than 16% - resulted in convictions.)

However, if DeWeese wants to maintain the illusion that he's not culpable with regard to bonuses, we can't imagine why he'd want closer scrutiny of the distinction.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

FROM THEIR OWN LIPS


Remember 2004?

Such an innocent time. Back then, it never occurred to anyone in the General Assembly that people could go to jail on accusations of using public resources for political purposes.

So innocent, in fact, that Republican Senators and staff alike had no qualms about admitting to a newspaper reporter that the caucus was paying a political operative, using taxpayer funds, to conduct opposition research on political candidates.

Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett did his best not to uncover any evidence against Senate Republicans by refusing to subpoena a single one of them, but even his best efforts couldn't keep them from incriminating themselves.

"From what I understand, [political operative Ron Harper Jr.] was very influential in helping Sen. Rob Wonderling defeat his opponent in Montgomery County," Sen. Gib E. Armstrong told the Lancaster Intelligencer-Journal and New Era. "Apparently, Wonderling's opponent did work with a redevelopment authority down there and was putting properties in his own name. Well, when that came out, it was over."

Breathtaking, isn't it? Taxpayer-funded political operative Mike Long didn't even try to hide the fact that the opposition research was conducted on the public dime: "Long said Harper earns $3,000 a month from the Senate Republican Caucus to research people and subjects important to the Senate."

Some of the other "people and subjects important to the Senate" back then were anti-pay raise activists working to unseat Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, Senate Republican Leader David "Chip" Brightbill and Republican Caucus chairman Sen. Noah Wenger. Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania said Harper "threatened and harassed" them.

Also "important to the Senate" was former Blair County Commissioner, now Senator John Eichelberger, who defeated Jubelirer in the 2006 primary. Harper allegedly "stalked" and harassed Eichelberger both during the 2006 Senate primary against Jubelierer and during a 2003 county commission primary, when Eichelberger ran against a Jubelirer-backed candidate.

Was Steve MacNett, in his voluntary appearances before the grand jury -the sole Senate GOPer to appear - asked about Harper's contract? Or Drew Crompton's months on the Lynn Swann campaign in 2006 and his subsequent taxpayer-funded bonus? Or the campaign work "political guru" Mike Long ran from his state senate office, and his corresponding bonuses? We're quite sure MacNett didn't "volunteer"' the information.

It's not 2004 anymore. You can't count on Senate Republicans freely admitting that taxpayer dollars were spent on political opposition research. In 2011, only a subpoena will get tongues wagging like it's 2004 again.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

PAYING THE PIPER, PART II


The state-paid legal fees did not cover the defense of officials once they were charged. They went to the cost of representing caucuses in the investigation and to ongoing bills for counsel for scores of House and Senate employees subpoenaed to testify. (Tribune-Review, 9/8/11)

During 2007 and 2008, when the House Democratic Caucus was the sole focus of Gubernatorial Candidate Tom Corbett's investigation of the General Assembly, H. William DeWeese was Majority Leader.

DeWeese was not among the original defendants indicted, despite ample evidence of his culpability.

In 2009, Todd Eachus replaced DeWeese as Leader of the now-Minority House Democratic Caucus. In 2009, DeWeese was indicted, but Eachus was not, despite ample evidence of his complicity.

In 2009, Sam Smith was Leader of the Majority Republican Caucus. John Perzel, for all his former power, held no formal leadership role in his caucus. When Corbett finally got around to indicting Republicans in 2009, Smith was not among them and Perzel was, despite the fact that Smith signed the shady contracts at the center of Perzel's alleged crimes.

Under Pennsylvania's caucus system, the only person authorized to spend caucus funds, whether for bonuses or for computer contracts or for legal fees, is the Leader. Not the Whip, and not the "Speaker Emeritus."

As we have noted before, at least one judge in Pennsylvania recognizes that witnesses are reluctant to implicate the people paying their legal bills. One might say an entire investigation could be tainted by such an arrangement.

It's "interesting" that of the three sitting lawmakers indicted, none of them were in a position to pay the lawyers counseling the witnesses who testified to the grand jury, and no one who controlled the purse strings during the testimony was indicted.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

LYING PROSECUTORS ARE A-OK WITH PHILLY PUNDIT


But there’s nothing unusual or suspect about a prosecutor picking and choosing his battles. Resources are limited, after all, and the point of a justice system is not just to punish the guilty, but also to deter crime in the first place. Going after high-profile targets, like Perzel, is a good deterrent to bad behavior. (Patrick Kerkstra, Philadelphia Magazine, 9/6/11)

Whether there's anything unusual or suspect about a prosecutor picking and choosing his targets aside (there is), prosecutors in this case have repeatedly and emphatically denied that's what they've done:

"Anybody who violated the law is going to get it," Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina told the Patriot-News.

CasablancaPA has repeatedly demonstrated what a huge lie Fina's statement is.

Now Kerstra also admits Fina's statement is a lie, but that's just fine by him.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

HOW MUCH CAN POLITICAL SUPPORT BUY?


[Governor Tom] Corbett reminded reporters today that he received campaign contributions from former House Speaker John Perzel in 2004, adding: "It didn't do him any good, did it[?] (Patriot-News, 9/1/11)

Or did it?

Back in early 2007, when media reports revealed that all four caucuses had awarded questionable bonuses, Corbett declined to begin investigating Republicans (despite his public statements to the contrary.) That was pretty good for Perzel and other Republicans who supported Corbett.

When House Republicans wanted to replace all their computers in July of 2007, in the midst of Corbett's so-called "investigation," Corbett told them to go right ahead. That was pretty good for Perzel and other Republicans who supported Corbett.

When Corbett executed a search warrant for documents, he seized only House Democratic documents, giving House Republicans the opportunity to destroy evidence and hide documents. That was pretty good for Perzel and other Republicans who supported Corbett. (Are judges really "laughing out of court" applications for search warrants and subpoenas that don't include probable cause that evidence sought is being destroyed? What's laughable is that no one questioned this lame explanation.)

Eight months into the "investigation," Corbett and his campaign manager met with Perzel. Subpoenas were issued three weeks later, suggesting that, had the meeting gone another way, subpoenas might not have been issued. That opportunity could have been great for Perzel (and any for other Republicans who supported Corbett, who may have had meetings we don't know about that did go another way.)

And even though House Republicans apparently didn't bother to comply with those subpoenas (could it be they had reason to believe Corbett wasn't serious about investigating them?), contempt hearings "held for the purpose of forcing the caucus into compliance with subpoenas and court orders" did not take place for an entire year. That was pretty good for Perzel and the other Republicans who supported Corbett.

Ten months into the "investigation," Corbett accepted a campaign contribution from Perzel's former chief of staff and allowed him to host a fundraiser, something he would never have done if Perzel and his former chief of staff were under investigation. Not being under investigation was pretty good for Perzel and his former chief of staff and the other Republicans who supported Corbett.

And even though investigators learned when they executed the warrant on House Democrats that House Republican records also were stored in the basement, Corbett never executed a search warrant for them. That was pretty good for Perzel and the other Republicans who supported Corbett.

And even when Corbett finally got around to issuing a subpoena for those records in February 2008, and immediately learned the boxes had vanished, Corbett didn't bother interviewing House Republican staffers about them until late July 2008. That, also, was pretty good for Perzel and the other Republicans who supported Corbett.

Finally, facing 82 felony counts for his alleged theft totaling $10 million (out of $20 million misappropriated; apparently no one is responsible for the other $10 million), Perzel was permitted to plead to just 8, fewer even than Mike Manzo, a staffer, who was charged with 47 felony counts in a $2 million crime. That's pretty good for Perzel (though we don't know, and may never know, what he promised to reveal - or not to reveal - in exchange for that deal. Up to now, this humble blog is the only outlet commenting on the glaring holes in Corbett's "investigation" of the House Republicans. A full-blown trial would make it hard for even the Capitol Stenographers Corps to avoid reporting on them.)

Did Perzel's political support for Corbett do him any good? In the end, it wasn't enough to get him off scot-free, but it took him pretty far. He supported Corbett for Attorney General in 2004, and that appears to have bought him some goodwill early in the "investigation." But after that meeting in October 2007, when Corbett was lining up support for his gubernatorial campaign - which he never got from Perzel - that goodwill appeared to dry up. Even lukewarm support might not have been enough to counteract the mounting pressure to prove the "investigation" wasn't partisan.

As we have seen with the so-called "investigation" of Corbett's longtime ally LeRoy Zimmerman, political support might have staved off investigation - watchdogs had been begging Corbett to investigate for six years. But when the state's largest newspaper, a month before the election, exposed the alleged corruption Corbett had been overlooking, he was forced at least to pretend he would investigate. And Zimmerman is a far more valuable ally than Perzel ever was.

Oh, by the way: has the more than $1.6 million in contributions Corbett received from natural gas drillers done them any good?