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Republican state senator Eichelberger skewers Attorney General Corbett

| Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

HARRISBURG — Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett's investigation of bonuses paid to legislative staffers who might have done political work has become "a joke," a GOP senator complained Wednesday.

The $8 million price tag for outside legal fees and the only result so far — charges brought a year ago against 12 people — combined with Corbett's likely campaign for governor raise questions about the investigation's validity, said Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona.

"The whole thing's been a joke, in my opinion," said Eichelberger, who in 2007 requested that Corbett look into the payment of taxpayer-financed bonuses allegedly for political work.

"He grabbed a whole bunch of Democrats a first-year law student could have prosecuted," Eichelberger said.

In July 2008, former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon, formerly of Beaver County, and 11 others were charged with using state resources for political campaigns. Veon is scheduled to stand trial in January. Three defendants have agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.

Because the investigation has dragged for two years, anything Corbett does with a gubernatorial campaign looming will appear political, Eichelberger said. Corbett has said he is investigating Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, and that he expects to file more charges.

"We have no response to Senator Eichelberger," said Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman. "The investigation is proceeding. If and when a grand jury determines there's probable cause to file charges, we'll make an announcement."

"As a former prosecutor, I understand it's extremely complicated and (the investigation) expands as he goes along," said Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, a former assistant district attorney in Allegheny County. "I'm confident in (Corbett) and I think he has handled this well."

The legal tab is the amount paid by the four political caucuses. It's money spent on lawyers who represented grand jury witnesses, interviewed staffers and reviewed documents.

The cost of the bonuses paid by all four caucuses in 2005 and 2006 totaled $3.6 million.

Corbett's office has been unwilling to say what the investigating is costing.

Eichelberger estimates its cost, counting Corbett's effort, at $10 million.

He said Corbett on several occasions has said charges would not be filed before elections, so that publicity wouldn't influence the outcomes. "It was all timed around campaign cycles," he said.

But as the 2010 governor's race gets under way, it will become harder to separate the corruption investigation from politics, he said.

"If (Corbett) does something that's really credible, he'll get a lot of credit for it," Eichelberger said. "I haven't heard anything to suggest anything's under way."

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said he is not surprised some lawmakers want the investigation to move more quickly.

"You're bound to see frustration when an investigation like this plays out over a period of time," Borick said. "When you have a candidate for governor of Pennsylvania leading an investigation like this, it's bound to fray nerves at some point."

Corbett has not formally announced his candidacy.

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