HARRISBURG - The former chief of staff to the House Majority leader Bill DeWeese testified in a Dauphin County court this morning that DeWeese knew and approved taxpayer-funded bonuses to Democratic staffers for campaign work.
Michael Manzo, DeWeese's one-time top aide, made the explosive allegations today at a preliminary hearing on the Bonusgate scandal.
Manzo, who was indicted in the case, has agreed to cooperate with state prosecutors and made his first public testimony in the case this morning.
DeWeese has maintained all along that he was not aware of the alleged wrongdoing described in the Bonusgate indictment, which alleges that taxpayer money and resources were used by House Democrats to further political campaigns since 2004.
DeWeese has not been been charged in the Bonusgate case. Although DeWeese has said in the past that he did not know of the crimes described in the indictments several Democrats in the House have asked him to step down from his leadership position.
DeWeese called Manzo's accusations "false," and said there is no evidence to support them.
"Manzo is a desperate, disgruntled former employee whom I fired last year for dishonesty and self-dealing," DeWeese told reporters late this afternoon. ". . . His motives are suspect and his opinions are just not credible."
DeWeese fired Manzo and six other staffers last year because of their involvement in the Bonusgate scandal.
Earlier today, House Democratic staffer Patrick J. Lavelle appeared in Dauphin County court this morning to testify and provide evidence at a preliminary hearing on the case.
The two were among 12 former and current House Democratic lawmakers and staffers indicted this summer for allegedly using taxpayer money and resources to benefit political campaigns.
Lavelle's attorney could not be reached for comment.
Philip Ignelzi, who represents Rep. Sean Ramaley (D., Beaver), told reporters yesterday that a top prosecutor for the state Attorney General's Office informed him and a Dauphin County judge that two of the 12 people charged in Bonusgate were expected to testify today during a preliminary hearing.
Lavelle was the first defendant to appear to be cooperating publicly with law-enforcement authorities since sweeping indictments were brought down this summer. The Bonusgate case alleges that 12 former and current House Democratic lawmakers and staffers carried out a conspiracy to use millions in government money and resources to underwrite campaigns to get Democrats elected to the House.
Ignelzi, who yesterday indicated two would cooperate, said the defendants were not named but were expected to appear before Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis this morning.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Tony Krastek yesterday declined to comment on any cooperating witnesses.
But Ignelzi said Krastek told him and Lewis "on the record" that the Attorney General's Office was scheduled to meet with the defendants yesterday evening to work out "an arrangement."
Asked whether he believed that meant the defendants were attempting to cut a deal, Ignelzi said Krastek "specifically said they were trying to work out an arrangement. . . . That happens on the eve of trials."
Ten of the 12 defendants waived their right to the preliminary hearing, which is supposed to determine whether state prosecutors have enough evidence to proceed to trial. Among those who have waived are former Democratic Whip Mike Veon (D., Beaver) and Brett Cott, his onetime aide. Yesterday Manzo waived but has appeared in court this morning for the preliminary hearing.
Veon's attorney, Bob Del Greco, said yesterday that the coming election, along with a "politically charged atmosphere," had led his client to the decision to waive the hearing.
He would not say whether Veon had a plea agreement or was cooperating with investigators.
The two defendants who have not waived are Ramaley (D., Beaver) and Anna Marie Perretta-Rosepink, who once ran Veon's district office in Western Pennsylvania.
Prosecutors allege that Veon created a "no-work" state job for Ramaley - before Ramaley was elected to office - that allowed Ramaley to run his 2004 campaign directly from Veon's taxpayer-funded district office. From Veon's office, Ramaley allegedly made political fund-raising calls, and used phones, printers and copiers at taxpayer expense.
Perretta-Rosepink is accused of assigning legislative assistants in Veon's district office to do campaign work while on the state clock.
Four witnesses testified at yesterday's hearing, which will resume at 9 a.m. today.
After the initial round of charges against the 12 Democrats this summer, the Bonusgate probe appears to be shifting its focus to Republicans in the House and Senate.
For a time, State Attorney General Tom Corbett held out the possibility that he would file a new batch of charges before the election if the investigation progressed far enough. Last month, however, he announced that he would not issue new charges - potentially against members of his own party - until after the election, if at all.
Doing so within a month of the election would be unfair, he argued, comparing the probe to an unfinished novel.
Corbett, a Republican who is seeking reelection, has faced pointed criticism of the probe. Some Democrats have alleged that by charging only Democrats to date, he is trying to influence the elections. Corbett has denied those accusations.
Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.