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Scandals will shake Capitol, lawmaker says

| Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007

HARRISBURG -- The foundations of the General Assembly are "going to get rattled in coming months" as a result of investigations into alleged "misuse of public dollars," a senior House Democrat said Wednesday.

Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, D-Reading, predicted that "change is in the air" as a result of Capitol scandals, including the secret awarding of $3.4 million in bonuses by legislative leaders to staffers.

"I think the foundations of this institution and this building up here are going to get rattled in coming months by the continuing examples of what I think are misuse of the public dollars and the power that seems to emanate from that misuse," said Caltagirone, a 30-year House member.

He charged that House and Senate leaders of both political parties "lose a sense of what it's all about. This money doesn't belong to them."

The bonuses are "just the tip of the iceberg," Caltagirone said.

The state Attorney General's Office is investigating bonuses that totaled $2.4 million in the House last year. About $1.9 million went to Democratic staffers. More than 40 of 64 House bonuses that exceeded $7,500 went to Democratic staffers who received reimbursement or salaries from campaigns. The top House bonuses ranged from $20,000 to $28,000.

A federal grand jury recently indicted Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, for allegedly misusing a nonprofit corporation for personal and political gain.

Caltagirone's candid assessment came at a news conference where he offered strong support to freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Uniontown, who proposed legislation for a stronger open records law and applying it for the first time to the Legislature.

In an interview after the news conference, Caltagirone said he was referring to change that would result from the federal and state investigations.

Questions about the secret bonuses and the allegations involving Fumo could have been avoided if the state had a strong Right to Know Law on the books, said Rep. Tom Tangretti, D-Greensburg, a co-sponsor of Mahoney's bill.

Mahoney said he would ask a special House commission on government reform to ban the bonuses. He said staffers who deserve more money should get raises, since their salaries are available for public inspection.

Many House members in interviews said they didn't know about the bonuses.

"I personally didn't have knowledge of this until after the fact," said Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick.

"I think it's a little excessive. I was kind of shocked," said freshman Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg. Kortz, a former manager at U.S. Steel, supports having "benchmarks" to govern staff salaries similar to those in private industry.

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