Did state lawmakers distribute millions in taxpayer dollars to legislative aides, who in turn, recycled the money into political contributions to their bosses?
It should come as no surprise that Pennsylvania legislative leaders gave out $3.7 million in taxpayer money as "bonuses" to selected staff members during the last two years.
This is the same Legislature that voted itself a middle-of-the-night pay raise and adjourned for summer vacation figuring it would all blow over.
The same Legislature that costs $308 million to operate each year. The same Legislature where leaders set up slush funds to siphon $215 million from the state treasury. The same Legislature whose members enjoy top-of-the-line pay, free medical care, a lifetime pension, a taxpayer-paid vehicle and all sorts of other perks.
News of the bonus payments is incredulous. Even Gov. Ed Rendell, who has pulled some fast ones on taxpayers over the past four years, called the bonus bonanza "stunning" when he found out how much money was involved. This from a man who wakes up each day thinking of new ways to spend other people's money.
"I think that what was done was stunning," Rendell was quoted by The Associated Press. "It shows that the need for reform is ever-present and urgent." No kidding, Sherlock.
The biggest windfall went to Mike Long, chief of staff to former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer. Long received a total of $41,000 in bonuses money in 2005 and 2006. In addition, Long was awarded a $95,000 severance package by Jubelirer, who was tossed out of office by voters for his support of the legislative pay raise. Long is the brother-in-law of former Senate Majority Leader Chip Brightbill, who was also ousted by the voters last year.
House Democrats announced Thursday their payments to staffers totaled $2.4 million after previously stating they gave out $400,000 in bonus money. I'm guessing math is not a strong suit for the Democrats except when it comes to adding zeros to the bonus checks of staff members.
Both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate were equally generous with our money. Senate Republican leaders spent $350,000 over the past two years on their hard-working staffers. Senate Democrats disclosed about $38,000 in bonuses from last year. House Republicans acknowledged approving $919,000 in bonuses during the two-year period.
Government watchdogs believe some of the work done by legislative aides may have been political, which is prohibited by state law. The bonus money may have been an attempt by legislators to circumvent the law and reward staffers who helped during political campaigns.
Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg-area citizen activist, filed a lawsuit this week to force House Democratic Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, to justify the raises and show whether they were related to campaign work.
The state's courts have not been very proactive in making sure the legislature does not violate the state constitution, so don't expect any help from the bench. But give Stilp credit for filing the lawsuit and bringing this latest scandal to the public's attention.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, who took office on Jan. 2, announced they will end the practice of awarding bonuses to legislative staffers.
Making sure everybody knew they were not involved in the decisions to give out the bonus money, Pileggi and Scarnati said: "We are ending this practice immediately."
Over at the House, DeWeese, who is never at a loss for words, had nothing to say about the growing bonus scandal. DeWeese said through an aide that the bonuses were an "an internal personnel matter" and he didn't want to discuss it. Wrong answer. When taxpayer money is involved, it's everybody's business.
One of the biggest windfalls went to Michael Manzo, who happens to be DeWeese's chief of staff. Manzo received $26,000 over the two-year period, according to The Associated Press. And Mr. Manzo wasn't the only member of his family to hit the jackpot. Manzo's wife, Rachel, who was the Democratic executive director of the Tourism and Recreational Development Committee, received $16,250 in bonuses during the same period, the AP reported.
The man who beat Jubelirer in the May 2006 primary election, John Eichelberger, R-Blair, has asked the state Attorney General to investigate the bonuses. An investigation by an outside agency is certainly warranted. While we're at it, let's call in the Justice Department and the FBI.
Voters also need to take action. This is another example of the continuous fleecing of Pennsylvania taxpayers by their elected representatives and one more reason to keep voting incumbents out of office.
Tony Phyrillas is a leading conservative political columnist and blogger based in Pennsylvania. He is a veteran journalist with 25 years experience as a reporter, editor and columnist for several newspapers. Phyrillas received recognition for column writing in 2010 from the Associated Press Managing Editors, in 2007 from Suburban Newspapers of America and in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone Chapter. A graduate of Penn State University, Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Pottstown, Pa. In addition to The Mercury website (www.pottsmerc.com), his columns are featured on more than a dozen political websites and blogs. Phyrillas is a frequent guest (and occasional host) on talk radio and has been a panelist on the "Journalists Roundtable" public affairs TV program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Phyrillas was named one of the '10 Leading Greek-American Bloggers in the World' in 2007 by Odyssey: The World of Greece magazine. BlogNetNews.com ranked Phyrillas the Most Influential Political Blogger in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years (2007-2010). You can follow Phyrillas on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas