The Susquehanna sewer backs up again

| Sunday, Feb. 4, 2007

Just when you think the stench coming from Harrisburg can't get any worse, the sewage treatment plant overflows. As per usual, taxpayers are downwind.

What started as the public exposure of the secret payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in "bonuses" to House Democrat staffers over the past two years has blossomed into what should prompt a full-fledged investigation.

Total "bonus" payments to all legislative staffers in 2005-06 now is reported to be at least $3.6 million.

House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, first forced by the media into full deer-in-headlights mode, initially low-balled the "bonus" totals to his party's lower chamber staffers. By a factor of four. Staffers received "bonuses" of $1.8 million in 2006 for a two-year total of nearly $2.3 million.

State House Republicans report two-year "bonus" totals of $919,271.

Over in the Senate, Democrats reported two-year bonus totals of $76,000. But it was a different and quite interesting story for the Senate's GOP majority.

The Republican Senate leadership revealed it had paid $366,134 in bonuses. It was a practice previously undisclosed, one leaders now say they will stop.

But what makes the GOP Senate payments most eyebrow-raising is the speculation -- flatly and repeatedly rejected by the politicos -- that some of the bonuses were paid not for the people's government business but for partisan campaign purposes. And some of the latter, quite frankly, were none too savory.

People being reasonable and money being fungible, the question should be asked if some of the money was paid to reward those who either participated in dubious legal maneuvering to undermine pay-jacking opponents or participated in tawdry smear campaigns against those good folks.

If that's the case, it's an outrage. But, also, it's a buffoonish irony: They were paid for failing.

There's nearly $31,000 in "bonus" money paid to Drew Crompton in 2005-2006. In 2005, he authored the infamous memo that suggested anti-pay-jacking forces be forced to register as lobbyists. Clear and simple, it was a blatant effort to intimidate the very successful grassroots campaign against legislative larceny. His taxpayer-funded bonus that year: $11,300.

Last year, and for about four months, he was a top policy adviser to unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann. So, let's get this straight: Mr. Crompton was on the state payroll for about eight months in 2006. And yet he received a taxpayer-funded bonus of $19,467?

Crompton's old boss, defeated Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer, defended the payments, reports Brad Bumsted, the Trib's Capitol correspondent. Crompton, Jubelirer says, was one of the "lowest paid staff attorneys in the building," refused pay raises and worked long hours on such issues as -- hold down your breakfast, folks -- lobbyist reform.

Bottom line: Taxpayers anted up a series of fat bonuses to a guy who produced a legal opinion designed to thwart taxpayers' efforts to reverse the pay-jacking molestation.

And then there's the curious case of Mike Long, the former chief of staff to Mr. Jubelirer, one of the pay-jackers in chief who was voter-tested and voter-rejected. Not only was Mr. Long paid $41,000 in "bonuses" in 2005-2006 but, upon his leave, he received a check for at least $95,000. That's said to have covered unused sick leave, vacation time and -- breakfast hold-down admonition No. 2 -- "severance."

What, was his job eliminated in some kind of legislative consolidation• Dream on. Was he dismissed because his superiors wanted to "go in another direction"• No. Mike Long lost his job because his boss got his rump kicked at the polls.

So, we're paying five weeks' severance to the top operative of a fired politician whose job simply ended?

Again, it must be stressed that the politicos in question categorically reject any suggestion that public money was used for campaign purposes. But given their long history of machinations, why should they be taken at their word?

A few things must happen to unclog the Susquehanna Sewer. And promises of no future outrageous bonuses in which perception really can't be separated from reality, or promises of transparency in this obviously long and opaque process, are not enough.

There must be an independent, bipartisan investigation -- first, to find out what really happened and, second, to develop rules to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

And to that end, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican, and state Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Democrat, should jointly investigate. (And, please, Mr. Wagner, don't say it's not within your purview; take the lead and challenge the prevailing and warped legal orthodoxy.)

But there can be no dallying. For amid all the happy talk of "reform," the stench of "business as usual" is frighteningly close to rendering unconscious government of, by and for the people.

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