Even after 25 indictments in the legislature, the folks in Harrisburg still don't get it.
There is no revolt yet by fed-up legislators. No unified denunciation of corruption, no concerted push for reforms.
For more than a decade, Bill DeWeese, John M. Perzel, and former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo were among the most powerful state legislators. At their height, Democrat DeWeese and Republican Perzel were speakers of the House. Democrat Fumo controlled the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as the kingdom of Philadelphia.
And now the scorecard for this trio reads: DeWeese, indicted; Perzel, indicted; Fumo, convicted.
Attorney General Tom Corbett's latest charges against DeWeese, aide Sharon Rodavich, and former Revenue Secretary Stephen Stetler allege a culture in Harrisburg that is sickeningly familiar. It's an arrogant tradition of public officials' using taxpayer dollars illegally for political purposes to guarantee their incumbency.
DeWeese has maintained he knew nothing about allegations his staffers were paid illegal bonuses with public money for campaign work.
The charges against DeWeese don't involve bonuses, but they are cut from the same dirty cloth. An indictment accuses DeWeese of putting people on the public payroll to run his campaign shop, and compelling his taxpayer-paid staff to work for his reelection.
The law is clear: Taxpayer money can't be spent on political campaign operations. But an e-mail from Mike Manzo, DeWeese's chief of staff, to DeWeese on Nov. 4, 2004, is typical of the evidence.
The message was written on a House e-mail system funded by taxpayers. Manzo informs DeWeese that he set a new personal record by raising $460,000 for House Democratic candidates, and that he should have an impressive $300,000 in his campaign war chest by the following summer, a nonelection year.
"You have separated yourself from the field on that front," Manzo wrote. "You are now nearing Fumo-status."
DeWeese responded to Manzo and another aide, Kevin Sidella: "Could not do without Kevin and CHIEF... Our Chief!!!!!!!!!"
DeWeese could very well be approaching Fumo's status — as a prison inmate. Manzo has agreed to plead guilty to charges in the probe, and gave testimony against DeWeese. Sidella received a grant of immunity to tell the grand jury how he was paid $275,000 in salary over six years, courtesy of taxpayers, to work almost exclusively on DeWeese's political campaigns.
Confronted with this evidence, DeWeese's pathetic response is: Hey, everybody was doing it.
Yet after 25 indictments in the legislature over 18 months, five pending guilty pleas and one acquittal, there is little open talk of legislators cleaning up their act.
House Democrats did spurn their leaders Thursday by electing Rep. Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny), a former prosecutor, to replace DeWeese as majority whip. It could be a small sign of progress. Yet there is no general clamor for the big changes that are needed, such as campaign-finance limits or reforming the reapportionment process that leads to so much partisan entrenchment.
The forecast is for more of the same. Consider what the watchdog group DemocracyRising/PA found when it tested the state's new open-records law to examine senators' "per diem" expenses.
A DR volunteer asked the Senate for the information. About a month later, a Senate official turned over data in a hard-to-decipher pdf format that DR founder Tim Potts said was "about as citizen-hostile as they can make it."
Bottom line: Over the past two years, senators have collected $774,700 for daily expenses such as meals and hotel rooms. That's on top of their salary, health care, and other benefits. The champ was Sen. John Wozniak (D., Cambria), at $37,826.
The state budget remains undone in a partisan squabble over table games at casinos. It's the legislature's most basic job, and it stands unfinished, six months after the statutory deadline.
A legislative audit committee reported last week that the legislature's leadership "slush fund" totals $201 million. In spite of programs being cut in the state budget crisis, and threatened layoffs of state employees, the legislature expects to end the year with a surplus of at least $181 million. During the budget impasse, the legislature spent $87 million of this taxpayer surplus on itself.