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Power failure in the House

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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007

HARRISBURG -- House Republicans desperately want Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese to survive the current grand jury mess and remain in power awhile longer.

Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell's aides privately yearn for former House Speaker John Perzel, a Republican, to return to power.

These are two oddities arising from the so-called "Bonusgate" scandal, a grand jury probe of possible state-paid rewards for political work.

The probe is now focused on House Democrats who doled out about two-thirds of the bonus money. The grand jury is also investigating a nonprofit in Beaver County, which was state funded and co-directed by former Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls.

Attorney General Tom Corbett's office has already charged former Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-Ellwood City, for conflicts in an alleged ghost-payroll scam.

So what's with DeWeese• Whether or not he's done anything wrong, all of this trouble occurred on his watch.

DeWeese's defense -- not necessarily a legal defense -- will be that he didn't tend to details and Veon was calling the shots.

The latter is probably true.

Lawmakers say there's no doubt Veon really ran the caucus. There is a huge dent in operations just based on Veon's departure. He was defeated at the polls last year after defiantly backing the 2005 legislative pay raise.

So with Veon gone and an apparent preoccupation with the grand jury investigation, the caucus is in shambles. "It's worse than it's ever been," a Democrat lawmaker said.

On top of that, DeWeese fired seven top aides last month in connection with the grand jury probe. Still highly regarded top aide Mike Manzo was ousted in the purge -- which leaves DeWeese without the two people who ran things.

Little of substance has been done by the House since the grand jury began heating up in August.

It took until the last day of session this year -- last Wednesday -- to pass a House version of open records reform.

Republicans privately love the inaction and disarray.

They'd like to see DeWeese remain in charge because they think he symbolizes to the public what's wrong with the caucus and that will help them regain control of the House in next year's elections.

Democrats control the House by only one vote. They took back the House last year -- some believe by using state-paid bonuses to reward staffers for doing political work. That suspicion also exists among Capitol insiders about the Senate Republican Caucus. (Corbett has said all four caucuses in the House and Senate will be investigated.)

Meanwhile, one of the losers in this mess is Rendell.

Theoretically, he should benefit from having the House under Democrat control. But much of his unfinished agenda -- a vigorous alternative-energy program and state-paid health insurance for people who now have none -- rests in the hands of House Ds.

That's why Rendell supporters yearn for the days of John Perzel.

Much of Rendell's first-term success resulted from Perzel forging a coalition of Southeast Republicans to join with Democrats. Perzel played a huge role in Rendell getting passage of the 2004 casino law, for instance.

But Perzel was viewed by reformers as the guy who was short-circuiting democracy at the Capitol. He rammed bills through. He got things done.

What role Rendell played is debatable, but Perzel was ousted last January when the Democrats threw their support behind Rep. Dennis O'Brien, R-Philadelphia, and with a handful of Republicans, elected him speaker.

Now, it is clear to some Democrats that Rendell was far better off with a GOP-controlled House and Perzel running it.

Whether taxpayers were better off in the Perzel glory days is another question entirely.

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