By Mario Cattabiani
HARRISBURG - Prosecutors in the so-called Bonusgate investigation today announced theft and conspiracy charges against former House Speaker Bill DeWeese and former state Revenue Secretary Stephen Stetler - just hours after Stetler resigned.
The latest round of Bonusgate charges, announced by Attorney General Tom Corbett, accused DeWeese and a longtime aide of using taxpayer funds for years to perform purely political and campaign work.
DeWeese (D, Greene), 59, who was House speaker in 1993 and 1994 and served in other House Democratic leadership positions until last year, was charged with conspiracy, conflict of interest and several counts of theft. The southwestern Pennsylvania legislator is now the House majority whip.
Similar charges were brought against Stetler and against former DeWeese aide Sharon Rodavich, 53.
Corbett said DeWeese's former chief of staff, Mike Manzo, testified to the Bonusgate grand jury that Rodavich "did nothing but politics" in her state-paid job. Manzo's testimony was part of a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a charge and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Numerous other legislative aides gave similar testimony, telling the grand jury that political work on the public's dime was "expected" of DeWeese staffers, Corbett said.
DeWeese issued a statement saying he had accomodated Corbett's investigation every step of the way.
"I've ordered that evidence be preserved," the statement said. "I've honored subpoenas for the production of tens of thousands of documents. I've directed my staff to cooperate and not obstruct. I've met with the team of investigators on multiple occasions and I've taken substantial steps internally to change the culture of the caucus by implementing ethics training and whistleblower provisions. Obviously I'm disappointed by today's actions."
Corbett, commenting on the evidence his investigators have accumulated to date in their ongoing three-year probe of both parties' use of state-paid legislative staff, said:
"Why don't these people understand that there has to be a separation between politics and the office?"
The charges against Stetler stemmed from his actions when he was a legislator and not his more recent tenure in Rendell's cabinet.
At an unrelated briefing yesterday morning, Rendell told reporters outside his Capitol offices that he accepted Stetler's resignation with sadness, but added that Stetler did the right thing in stepping down.
Stetler, Rendell said, "performed brilliantly and ably and with great integrity as secretary."
"Obviously, you cannot have a high ranking public employee continue to function in a job like that with a cloud over his or her head," Rendell added.
Stetler, 60, a former Democratic House member from York County, also had run the campaign arm of the party's caucus. In that role, he reportedly endorsed a policy in which legislative staffers were used as campaign researchers on state time.
Rendell said he has appointed longtime state revenue official Daniel Hassell as acting revenue secretary. "He has been the heart and soul of this department for a long time," the governor said.
To date, 22 people – current and former legislators and staffers associated with the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the state House – have been charged in the scandal.
With today's announcement, the investigation that began as a look into bonuses paid to staff for political work has grown to include criminal charges against two of the state's most prominent legislative leaders in recent years.
The charges against DeWeese come a month after Corbett's prosecutors accused former House Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) of spending $10 million in state funds to build sophisticated databases designed to give the GOP an edge in elections.
Perzel has said he did nothing improper and said Corbett, a fellow Republican, is using the investigation to promote his own announced run for governor next year.
Late last month, Stetler, DeWeese and House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) - received letters from Corbett's office inviting them to testify before a grand jury, an invitation that is sometimes a prelude to criminal charges being filed.
Former Rep. Sean Ramaley (D., Beaver) was cleared last week by a jury of all charges filed against him in the first round of Bonusgate counts in July 2008.
The jurors took fewer than three hours to acquit Ramaley in the first trial to arise from the investigation. He had been charged with holding a no-work state job while campaigning for a seat in the state House.