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So far, Pennsylvania Senate has escaped House cleaning

| Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011

HARRISBURG — Though three aides to a former House speaker are set for trial this month on charges of misusing public resources, the Capitol buzz about legislative corruption targets the Senate these days.

Sen. John Eichelberger, who five years ago requested an investigation into $366,000 in Senate bonuses paid to Republican staffers, says he's disappointed the state attorney general hasn't charged anyone. He blames "politics" as the likely reason.

"You don't know if they really worked it or dropped it," said Eichelberger, an Altoona Republican.

The secrecy of grand jury investigations keeps prosecutors from talking about the next step in the probe. Asked why no one in the Republican-controlled Senate was charged, Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina said he won't comment on investigations. Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for Attorney General Linda Kelly, said Kelly won't say anything because she "believes the investigation is first and foremost."

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who was attorney general when the bonus investigation began in 2007, won't talk about it, said his press secretary Kevin Harley. Before he became governor, Corbett said investigators were looking at both political parties in the House and Senate.

Indeed, what started as an investigation into bonuses paid to staffers for campaigns broadened, leading to charges against 25 people connected with the House. Juries convicted three and acquitted two Democratic defendants. Twelve Republicans and Democrats pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors. Eight cases are pending.

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, Corbett's 2008 Democratic opponent for attorney general, says "the results in the House were very good. I give Tom Corbett credit."

That's a far more kindly look at the corruption investigation than Morganelli had on the campaign trail, when he blasted Corbett for not appointing an independent special prosecutor and not simultaneously investigating the four caucuses. He also had accused Corbett of not investigating Senate Republican leaders who supported Corbett politically and financially with sizeable campaign donations.

Corbett insisted that a campaign contribution wouldn't influence him. In November 2009, he charged former House Speaker John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, who pleaded guilty last week to eight felonies.

Prosecutors said Perzel, who gave campaign money to Corbett, oversaw a scheme to divert $10 million in state tax money into technology to boost House GOP campaigns. Three of Perzel's former aides are set for trial Sept. 26.

Corbett had vowed to follow the evidence wherever it led, but said the House Democratic Caucus stood out because of the magnitude of its bonuses. Records showed bonuses given to legislative staffers in the 2005-2006 session totalled $3.6 million. House Democrats handed out $2.3 million; House Republicans, $919,000; Senate Democrats, $41,000.

Still, Morganelli thinks the attorney general's office ought to explain why no charges resulted against senators or their employees, because of "circumstantial evidence" that campaign operatives received thousands of dollars in bonuses.

A prosecutor might have reasons not to, Morganelli concedes — such as no credible evidence, or an investigation that remains active but low-key. Or, he said, a grand jury could issue a report on the Senate without filing charges.

Eichelberger said he can't believe no evidence surfaced. He acknowledges it might be sketchier after five years. "My recollection isn't as good as it was five years ago," he said.

Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson said the caucus has cooperated with the Attorney General's Office. To date, it has spent $2.5 million to pay legal fees in connection with the investigation. Figures were not immediately available for the other caucuses.

"We are not aware of any charges being filed against individuals connected to the Senate Republican Caucus in connection with the 'Bonusgate' investigation, nor are we aware of such charges being contemplated," Arneson said.

Eichelberger said he hears scuttlebutt that the FBI has overtaken any Senate investigation. An FBI spokesman did not return calls.

A federal investigation put former Senate Democratic powerbroker Vince Fumo in prison for a 55-month sentence on charges of defrauding a nonprofit and a seaport museum. Last year federal prosecutors charged ex-Sen. Raphael Musto, D-Pittston, with taking kickbacks from a contractor. And the FBI last year raided the home and office of former Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow, D-Lackawanna County. Mellow has not been charged.

The state investigation landed another high-profile Democrat in prison: former House Minority Whip Mike Veon from Beaver Falls. He is serving a six-year term for his conviction last year for overseeing a vast state-paid political operation in the House — including bonuses with taxpayers' money to aides who worked on campaigns.

"It strains the imagination to think both caucuses in the House were doing this, yet both caucuses in the Senate were puritan political players," said Eric Epstein, founder of reform group Rock the Capital.

Rep. Bill DeWeese, a Waynesburg Democrat and former House speaker facing charges, calls it "outrageous and unfathomable" that the Attorney General's Office charged 25 people in the House and no one in the Senate. His trial on charges of using his staff for re-election campaigns is set for next year.

"For five years we've been waiting to understand the breadth and depth of Corbett's investigation of the Republican Senate," said DeWeese. "This is longer than World War II."

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