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Probing the per- diem scam

| Sunday, April 29, 2012, 2:50 p.m.


Former House Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, faces 59 criminal charges in the "Bonusgate" scandal for allegedly masterminding a multimillion-dollar political operation out of the state Capitol using tax dollars.

Five of the felonies against Veon issued by a statewide grand jury are raising eyebrows in some quarters.

They should also send a shiver of fear down the spines of other legislative leaders and committee chairmen.

The charges revolve around the so-called "basketball dinners."

Veon and his buds in the Democratic caucus would shoot hoops on Tuesday nights. Veon used his contingency account as a House leader to pay for meals that would be laid out on the conference table of his Capitol office by two female staffers.

Over a five-year period, Veon charged taxpayers $22,000 for meals, according to the grand jury. On the same dates meals were ordered, Veon also collected $10,865 from taxpayers in "per diem" payments. These are flat food and lodging expenses paid to lawmakers when they are on official business. No receipts are required.

Veon is charged with theft and conflict of interest for the dinners.

The per diem rate is now $158 for legislators for a Harrisburg trip.

Does that mean other House members and senators who used their contingency accounts for meals are guilty of crimes if they collected per diems on the same day?

By one analysis, House GOP chairmen and leaders spent $121,242 on dinners from 2005 through 2008. How many collected full per diems?

The fact that Veon's dinners came after B-ball games argues against their legitimacy.

However, since I've been covering the Capitol -- starting in 1983 -- lawmakers of both parties have been ripping off taxpayers by claiming the full per diem while also charging the state for pricey dinners. Sometimes, the caucus or chief clerk's office would provide dinner at the Capitol while legislators were in session.

The Maverick Steak House was the favorite watering hole for years until it burned down. Vissagio's, an Italian eatery, was also a regular spot. Tavern on the Hill has been a more recent favorite. There's no doubt whatsoever that many collected per diems while also charging the state for fancy dinners.

It's double-dipping.

Sometimes, leaders would put the arm on a lobbyist and take a half-dozen members along for a free meal, all the while collecting the full per diem.

In September, House Comptroller Alexis Brown issued a memo to all 203 House members saying in light of "recent events" lawmakers who go for dinner away from the Capitol must deduct that from their per diem. If the meals are provided at the Capitol by the clerk's office or during a caucus or committee meeting, they don't need to deduct dinners, she wrote.

The "other guy is doing it too" doesn't wash ethically. But you can be sure it will be raised by the defense.

Some suggest that going after Veon on the meals is selective prosecution by Attorney General Tom Corbett.

No way, his office says. He just followed the evidence.

"During the course of our investigation, we developed evidence related to Veon's basketball dinners," said Kevin Harley, spokesman for Corbett. "That evidence was referred to a grand jury. It will be up to a jury to determine whether that is misappropriating tax money. I can't really comment on the others. The evidence was uncovered in our investigation of Veon."

The long history of this double-dipping scam begs for a five-year forensic audit of the General Assembly.

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