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New light on Bonusgate prosecutions

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG

If you want to sue one of the caucuses of the state Legislature, think again. Despite their political tilt, they have sovereign immunity like other parts of state government, Commonwealth Court has ruled.

By definition, the caucuses are the political party in power (majority caucus) and the party out of power (minority caucus). There are four, two for each chamber of the Legislature.

State laws did not create the caucuses. But the Senate Republicans, in defending a lawsuit against them by Precision Marketing Inc., argued that the General Assembly has “inextricably bound the political party caucuses to the legislative process in Pennsylvania”; the caucus system is “essential” to their ability to “perform their legislative duties.”

In other words, politics and government are inseparable.

The political nature of the taxpayer-supported caucuses went haywire from about 2002 through 2011. Charges were filed against 38 people with legislative ties by local, state and federal prosecutors. Most cases involved using tax dollars for campaigns. The majority were prosecuted by former Attorney General and now-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

Corbett's probe led to charges only against officials in the House Democratic and Republican caucuses. Three former Senate Democrats were prosecuted by the FBI. Former Sen. Jane Orie was the only Republican charged and convicted. The Orie case was prosecuted by Allegheny County District Attorney Steven Zappala.

Corbett's critics long have contended that he gave Senate Republicans a pass. Those close to the case say there was no systemic scheme among Senate Republicans like the other caucuses. State prosecutors have never given an official on-the-record reason.

The case decided by Commonwealth Court touched on the periphery of that issue: Senate Republicans, in 2009, canceled a $1.2 million contract with Precision Marketing of Easton. They did so after the company president was charged with public records tampering. Thomas Severson pleaded guilty in 2010. It was not connected to his work for the Senate GOP.

The services provided by Precision Marketing included constituent contact lists compiled from voter data found at county boards of elections, the court ruling said. That sounds vaguely like the data purchased by House Republicans that resulted in criminal charges against some top GOP officials, including former House Speaker John Perzel.

But it depends what you do with the data. Perzel was using them for campaigns. Former Senate Republican counsel Stephen MacNett said in a deposition that the Senate Republican Caucus used this information for core legislative functions.

His “uncontradicted testimony” establishes that the Senate Republican Caucus “used the database service ... to obtain or verify residence and contact information for constituents and constituent-communication purposes,” the court said. Senate GOP campaigns bought data from Precision separately.

It's likely to be one more reason why no criminal charges were filed by Corbett against the Senate GOP.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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