HARRISBURG — Hundreds of legislative employees believed to have been illegally paid from state coffers for political campaign work, even an aide who collected a salary for a virtual no-show job, will likely not be asked to return any money.
Instead, the attorney general plans to pursue repayment from those accused of being behind an alleged House Democratic operation from 2004-06 to illegally use millions of tax dollars for politicking.
Asked if the House Democratic caucus would try to recoup any misused taxpayer money, a caucus official simply pointed to the intentions of the attorney general to seek restitution.
Authorities say it is unclear how many of the employees caught up in the House scandal, but not charged, knew they were wrongly doing campaign work on state time or collecting taxpayer-funded bonuses for work that outside Democratic Party campaign organizations should have paid for.
The Attorney General’s Office earlier this month charged 12 current and former House Democratic lawmakers and employees in one of Harrisburg’s biggest political corruption scandals in years. Attorneys for the defendants have said their clients are innocent, while Attorney General Tom Corbett said more arrests are expected and that his office’s yearlong investigation into the other legislative caucuses is continuing.
Prosecutors say at least $3 million went toward salaries, bonuses, supplies and more to support campaign activity carried out largely by employees of the House Democratic caucus. The Legislature has a state-funded operating budget, but political activity designed to elect or defeat political candidates is supposed to draw upon private contributions to outside campaign organizations.
Prosecutors say it is too early in the legal process to be able to calculate how much money the state might be able to get back on behalf of taxpayers.
“There’s a lot variables, a lot of ground to cover between now and then,” said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for Corbett.
A spokesman for the House Democratic leader, Bill DeWeese, said the caucus had encouraged employees to tell the truth and cooperate with the investigation. But spokesman Tom Andrews said he did not know whether the caucus planned to seek repayment of any money, and he had no response as to whether anyone had approached the caucus about paying back money.
“The Attorney General already has expressed his intention to seek restitution from those charged,” Andrews said.
Efforts to speak with several caucus employees identified by the grand jury as having taken part in illegal activities and benefited from illegal spending were unsuccessful. Some did not return telephone or e-mail messages, while others referred questions to Andrews.
It is clear from grand jury testimony by employees of the House Democratic caucus that at least some knew the caucus operations were illegal, authorities said, given the emphasis on maintaining the secrecy of some campaign activities at the statehouse.
Former Rep. Michael R. Veon, a top House Democrat who lost his re-election bid in 2006 and is one of the 12 charged, is accused of turning to caucus employees to produce campaign and fundraising literature. In doing so, the grand jury said, employees were told repeatedly that literature be concealed in closed boxes when being transported out of Veon’s statehouse office.
“These efforts, while notorious within the Veon offices, were not to be disclosed outside of the office,” the grand jury report said. “The need for secrecy of these operations was repeatedly emphasized.”
The report also cited other examples where employees clearly knew something was amiss.
A former intern for the House Democrats, Angela Bertugli, accepted a part-time job in 2005 that she believed was created because of her sexual relationship with DeWeese’s then-chief of staff, Michael Manzo, according to the grand jury report.
She was initially assigned to a dingy room above a cigar store in Pittsburgh and had little work to do — when she did, it was campaign-related, the grand jury said.
“Bertugli concluded, with certainty, that Manzo hired her because she was having sex with him,” the grand jury report said.
Her first-year salary was $21,000. That rose to $29,100 in the second year, plus a $7,000 bonus after going off the payroll for several weeks to perform campaign work.