Monday, February 12, 2007

Follow the money

The phrase "Follow the money" entered the American lexicon in the days of Watergate when the mysterious "Deep Throat" advised Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward to look closer at the money trail that linked the Watergate burglars all the way to the White House.

"Follow the money" is now the mantra of the growing "bonusgate" scandal involving the Pennsylvania Legislature.

The initial news that legislative leaders handed out $3.6 million in secret bonuses to staff members was shocking enough. But as reporters began looking closer at which staffers got the most money and compared the list of recipients with donors to legislative campaigns, it became clear we were dealing with an elaborate conspiracy to divert taxpayer money into the campaign coffers of top Pennsylvania politicians.

A scan of weekend headlines from around the state shows that "bonusgate" is not going to go away any time soon.

"Attorney general reviews bonuses" was a lead story in the Harrisburg Patriot News. The story by Brett Lieberman says that Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, while not launching a full-blown criminal investigation, is concerned about the growing scandal. The size and basis of awards to House staffers look questionable, Corbett told the newspaper.

Corbett, a Republican who wants to be Pennsylvania's next governor, has been keeping a low profile since "bonusgate" broke a couple of weeks ago, but this is no time for the state's top law enforcement officer to sit on the sidelines.

Corbett needs to devote all the resources of his office to investigate the Legislature. (It wouldn't hurt his political ambition if he was the man who exposed questionable practices involving taxpayer money).

While both Democrats and Republicans handed out bonus money to staffers, the bulk of the payments came from House Democrats. And who was calling the shots the past two years? Two familiar names: Reps. Bill DeWeese and Mike Veon. The former is now House majority leader, the latter was the No. 2 Democrat in the House until he was tossed out by voters in November).

The heart of Corbett's investigation should be determening how and why House Democrats spent $1.8 million on bonuses in 2006 (an election year) when the very same party bosses spent only $435,000 on bonuses in 2005. It just doesn't add up.

Lieberman's full story can be read online at

Another interesting headline over the weekend ("Top bonus recipients aided top Dems") was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which did its own analysis of "bonusgate." Reporters Tracie Mauriello and Jon Schmitz found that 80 of the 100 largest raises went to staff who worked for or gave money to the DeWeese and Veon campaigns. Again, follow the money.

Nobody is saying DeWeese or Veon broke any laws and the two veteran politicians have repeatedly said there was no connection between the bonuses and election work.

But something sure smells fishy when "80 of the 100 Democratic state House staffers awarded the biggest bonuses in their government paychecks last year either donated money to or worked on the political campaigns of the two powerful Democratic leaders who controlled the bonuses," according to the Post-Gazette article.

The full story is online at

Another headline from the weekend, "Political bonuses under fire," ran in the York Daily Record under a story written by Richard Fellinger of the newspaper’s Harrisburg bureau.

This from Fellinger’s investigation: "The Daily Record/Sunday News analyzed staff bonuses and expenditures from campaign-finance reports and found dozens of examples of government staffers who received big bonuses and a salary or reimbursement check from a key campaign."

While the state Attorney General and newspapers are cautions in making any direct direct link between the bonuses and what the staffers did with the money, citizen activists are calling it as they see it.

Watchdog groups such as Common Cause of Pennsylvania are already troubled by the bonus revelations, Fellinger reported. "What has to be learned is whether these bonuses were simply a laundering operation to pay staffers who took leave without pay (to work on campaigns)," Common Cause executive director Barry Kauffman told Fellinger.

Fellinger's full story is online at

Brad Bumstead, the statehouse reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, also tackles "bonusgate" in his weekly column, which hints at another possible criminal investigation.

"There's been a lot of whispering up here that this could potentially turn into a criminal problem," Bumstead writes. "The attorney general and the U.S. attorney in Harrisburg have been asked to investigate."

Bumstead also quotes Pennsylvania's resident gadfly.

One person asking for a probe, Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp, told Bumstead: "Whoever gets to the prosecutor's office first gets immunity. We need someone to regain their integrity and go down and visit the state or federal prosecutor. Then we'll see it start to collapse."

Bumstead's full column is online at

Is the press making too much of the "bonusgate" scandal? Time will tell. Let's not forget that what began as a bungled burglary at the Watergate hotel led to the impeachment and resignation of a sitting U.S. president. Who knows how far "bonusgate" goes and who will end up paying the price?

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Breaking news: Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett announced Wednesday he will launch an official investigation into bonusgate. Better late then never.