Corbett, election aides met in office, raising 'appearance' of illegality
HARRISBURG — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the former attorney general whose prosecutions drew a strict line between campaign and government activities, met with top campaign advisers in the governor's office on numerous occasions since taking office in January 2011, state records show.
Corbett's official schedule shows campaign advisers regularly attended meetings with him, whether joining a few state-paid aides or larger meetings with state staffers.
All were policy meetings, Corbett's office said. Spokesman Jay Pagni said the governor wants input from all advisers, and the participation of campaign aides was “appropriate and legal.”
Watchdog groups and defense attorneys whose clients went to prison because of Corbett's prosecutions sharply disagreed.
“It's difficult to prove it's illegal, but it certainly is an appearance of impropriety,” said Joel Sansone, a Downtown Pittsburgh lawyer who represented former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon, who is serving a 6- to 14-year state prison sentence for felony theft.
Corbett “continues to set an example of how to balance his political and office schedule,” said his campaign manager, Mike Barley.
Documents list Barley as having “weekly meetings” this year with Corbett and Chief of Staff Leslie Gromis Baker. They have not met at the Capitol that often and more frequently talk by phone, Barley said.
The key difference between cases Corbett prosecuted and meetings with government and campaign staff is “there's no tax money involved,” Barley said.
There's a “significant difference” in having a campaign adviser at the Capitol and paying a campaign operative with state money, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.
Corbett of Shaler is being challenged for re-election in November by Democrat Tom Wolf, a York businessman.
Wolf, running as an outsider, could point to Corbett's mixing campaign and government advisers as “Harrisburg politics as usual,” Leckrone said.
As the state's top elected prosecutor from 2005 through 2010, Corbett began investigations that led to 23 convictions of legislative staffers and ex-lawmakers, including two former House speakers, for using public resources for campaigns. In the best-known cases, $1.4 million in taxpayer money was given as bonuses to Democratic staffers to work on campaigns. Veon, formerly of Beaver Falls, was convicted for approving that scheme.
Corbett's prosecutions were the linchpin of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
As attorney general, Corbett emphasized the need to separate campaign and government work.
“Given his past and his background, there's something important here, and it is avoiding the appearance of impropriety,” Madonna said.
Mixing campaign and policy advice at meetings “is a radical departure from the brand he established,” said Eric Epstein, founder of reform group Rock the Capitol.
But, Barley said, Corbett “can't stop being governor” and must handle governmental and political duties. He said Corbett “established a very strong record on reform.”
“People should be judged by the standards by which they judged others,” said Bill Fetterhoff, a Harrisburg criminal defense attorney who represented the lone Democrat acquitted at Veon's 2010 trial and a former Republican staffer convicted in a separate case in 2011.
“Who cares about this? The people he has crucified for crossing the lines,” Fetterhoff said.
He noted one element of the Republican case involved “a couple boxes of campaign documents in the Capitol” that led to criminal charges.
“Public resources are not supposed to be used for partisan political purposes,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania. “I think (Corbett) places himself in a position of hypocrisy if he doesn't apply the same standards to himself (that) he applied to others.”
Other campaign aides who met in the governor's office include consultant John Brabender at a January 2013 meeting with Corbett, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, nine top aides, former campaign manager Brian Nutt and finance director Nan McLaughlin.
Nutt and McLaughlin, together or separately, attended other meetings through 2013, records show.
The Tribune-Review could not reach McLaughlin or Brabender.
“There were a couple of meetings at the beginning (2011). There was never anything that was a decision, or of any major substance,” said Nutt, a lobbyist and communications consultant who managed Corbett's 2010 campaign and worked for Brabender from January 2011 through this April.
Records show Nutt was involved in a meeting in 2012 and one in 2013.
Corbett's schedule listed Brabender in mid-November 2011, shortly after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal broke. Corbett, as attorney general, began the investigation that led to the former Penn State University assistant football coach's conviction as a serial predator.
It's not clear whether Brabender's meeting with Corbett was related to the Sandusky case, Pagni said.
“The governor relies on his advisers, whether they are on staff or outside of staff,” Pagni said.
He said Corbett “takes great strides to ensure everything he does is transparent and that he is accountable for those decisions and actions.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.