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State corruption went high-tech, grand jury says

| Saturday, July 19, 2008

HARRISBURG -- High-tech corruption emerged at the Capitol in 2005, according to a state grand jury report.

House Democrats spent more than $1.7 million in taxpayers' money on "blast e-mails" for political purposes, for work on campaign Web sites and to acquire the e-mail addresses, the grand jury alleged.

The operation was so sophisticated that the company doing the work used a computer server in Michigan to hide the fact that the e-mails came from taxpayer-paid computers in the Capitol.

The computer-generated efforts to reach voters on behalf of Democratic candidates was a little-noticed aspect of the July 10 grand jury presentment that resulted in criminal charges against former Democratic House Whip Mike Veon of Beaver Falls; a sitting lawmaker, Rep. Sean Ramaley of Economy; and 10 legislative aides. They are charged with conflict of interest, theft and conspiracy.

Two owners of computer companies hired by the Democrats testified under grants of immunity. A Churchill businessman hired by the House Democratic Caucus to provide Internet technology for use in political campaigns was paid $82,500 in state tax money, according to the grand jury report. James Rossell, owner of Gravity Web Media, confirmed he testified before the grand jury but declined other comment.

Rossell replaced Eric Buxton and his company, Govercom, after Democrats became dissatisfied with Buxton's work. Buxton's company was paid $420,000 -- solely for campaign work, the grand jury report said. Buxton could not be reached for comment. He is the son of Rep. Ron Buxton, D-Harrisburg, chairman of the House Ethics Committee. His office said he was unavailable for comment.

"The Internet, every election, plays a bigger role," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "Younger voters get more and more of their communication from that medium."

Still, sending e-mails to voters isn't the dominant force of political campaigns, Borick said. Television ads remain the best way to reach people, he said.

Yet, "(Internet campaigning) is an increasingly important part of the portfolio," Borick said.

$1.2 million to set up

In 2003, Veon and Mike Manzo, then chief of staff to House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene County, established LCOMM, the Leaders Communications Office. Eric Buxton and four other Democratic officials staffed the office. One of those working there was Steve Keefer, who was charged with crimes last week.

Eric Buxton told the grand jury the fundamental purpose was to "move the message of the caucus into the electronic age," the report says. The stated purpose of the office was to relay "initiatives and achievements of the caucus" to citizens.

But Veon, Manzo and Keefer had other ideas, the report says. They intended to use computers for campaign purposes, it is alleged.

To send out "blast e-mails" required compiling large numbers of e-mail addresses. The caucus began to purchase addresses. In the first year alone, the caucus purchased 900,000 e-mail addresses at a cost of a dime per address.

In all, the Democratic caucus spent $1.2 million of taxpayers' money to buy e-mail addresses between 2003 and 2005, the report said. The e-mails were put into a database so they could be separated by legislative district and by demographic groups -- enabling the caucus to identify voters by "ethnic codes, age and income levels," Buxton testified.

The first use of the system was in a 2005 special election in Allentown. That's when Buxton hired the out-of-state server to obfuscate that the e-mails were being sent by state Capitol computers.

The e-mails were used in the special election featuring Democrat Linda Minger and Republican Rep. Karen Beyer, who won the contest. The House Democrats sent 170 staffers to Allentown to help Minger, the report said.

"It's outrageous," said Beyer. "The problem is, they tried to buy an election using taxpayers' money."

Beyer said she was surprised to hear about "blast e-mails" from state offices being used against her.

In August 2005, Buxton left the House staff and formed his own company.

Investigators eventually recovered about 17,000 e-mails from Buxton's computer. "Indeed, every e-mail reviewed was for campaign purposes," the report said.

Virtually all of the campaign communication with Buxton occurred through use of the taxpayer-funded e-mail system, the grand jury alleged. DeWeese was an exception. He used his campaign e-mail account.

Ideas for the campaign e-mails came from Veon or staffer Brett Cott, who also is charged with crimes, the grand jury said. These would be crafted into a draft e-mail. The final product would be approved by Veon, Cott or Manzo, the report alleged.

The e-mails contained formatting that made it appear they were being sent by the House Democratic Campaign Committee or a candidate's campaign committee. They would be "blasted" to targeted voters. In 2006 alone, more than 300 group e-mails were created within the Capitol and sent by Buxton, according to the grand jury.

Veon, Manzo and Keefer became dissatisfied with Buxton between the primary and the general election of 2006, Bob Caton, Veon's former press secretary, told the grand jury.

That's when they turned to Rossell, to "contract with him to obtain his assistance on campaign Web sites and blast e-mails for the caucus leadership," the grand jury said. Rossell testified the state officials insisted on preparing the contract themselves. The contract made no reference to campaign work.

Dan Reese, the Democrats' program Web supervisor, told the grand jury he was "unaware of any legitimate work ever performed by Gravity Web Media."

Rossell told the grand jury that Keefer bragged about a large budget for information technology, with no oversight.

Mary Ann Reese-O'Leary, the caucus controller, told the Tribune-Review the $6 million information and technology budget was not under her purview until November 2007. That's when DeWeese fired seven top House staffers, including Manzo, Cott and Keefer. The $6 million is the same amount that House Republicans get for IT work, she said.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, insisted the GOP has not used e-mails for political purposes. Some were used for issue-based messages, he said.

In 2006, a House Republican staffer built a Web site attacking anti-government watchdog Russ Diamond. Bob Nye said he did it at his home in Elizabethtown, not at the Capitol. Court documents later alleged that a state computer accessed the site.

Miskin said Nye did not work on the site at the Capitol, but he acknowledged he might have called it up to look at it or show it to others.

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