Former U.S. attorney and Republican congressional candidate Patrick Meehan issued a bold announcement to the media Tuesday: He would reveal "newly uncovered information" that would call into question his Democratic opponent's "fitness for higher office."
But the theatrics of Wednesday's event - held in front of the white marble staircase and beneath the painted dome ceiling of the State Capitol Rotunda - were quickly turned upside down when Meehan's opponent, state Rep. Bryan Lentz, upstaged him at the microphone, tossing a Meehan campaign sign that sailed to the floor.
"If you drove up to Harrisburg for this press conference . . . you should ask him for gas money back to Philadelphia for this nonsense," Lentz, a Swarthmore Democrat, said as Meehan, red-faced, walked away. "He has no evidence rendering me unfit for higher office. So he can walk away, and he can run away."
Expect the acrimony to continue: The two will face off in one of the most competitive congressional races in the nation this year after Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak left the Seventh Congressional District seat to run for U.S. Senate.
Meehan, 54, of Drexel Hill, aimed to tie Lentz directly to Bonusgate, a corruption scandal that involved House staffers working on campaigns at taxpayer expense. Many have been investigated, and more charges may come. But Lentz have never been charged or even questioned about Bonusgate since the probe began in 2007.
Meehan, whose campaign has so far displayed the cautious tone one might expect from a former federal prosecutor, attacked Lentz with uncharacteristic flair Wednesday.
"This is a crime scene," Meehan said. "From inside this capitol, a massive and illegal political operation was conducted on state time with taxpayer money."
His campaign said it had new information connecting Lentz to Bonusgate, but Meehan's main assertion involved a House staffer who was connected to Bonusgate in 2007 and has never been prosecuted.
The staffer, Ann Collis, who works as part of the communications team in Harrisburg, worked on Lentz's House campaign for about a month in 2006. She was later paid a $9,565 bonus funded by taxpayers for campaign work.
After the press conference, Meehan campaign staff said they had found more than 20 state workers who helped out with Lentz's 2006 race and were later linked to Bonusgate.
"The fruit of that poisonous tree goes directly to a number of people, and one of the specific beneficiaries of that poisonous tree was legislator Bryan Lentz," Meehan said. "I want to know what he knew about the conduct of the people on his campaign in that cycle."
Lentz, 46, said his campaign did not pay Collis in 2006. He said he assumed she was either a volunteer or someone paid through the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
But Lentz said he had no idea she received a taxpayer-funded bonus until the matter hit the newspapers in 2007. As for the other alleged Bonusgate ties, he said he had not heard of the people mentioned by the Meehan campaign and also did not know whether they had received bonuses or done campaign work on state time.
"I was sworn in in 2007. I learned about Bonusgate the same way most people did: through the newspapers," Lentz said. "I had nothing to do with Bonusgate, no knowledge of Bonusgate . . . If I had been aware that anyone was being paid with taxpayer dollars or would later receive a bonus, I would've put a stop to that."
Lentz also hammered Meehan for forgeries and other irregularities on his nominating petitions, a case currently being investigated by state authorities. Meehan reported irregularities on his own petitions to law enforcement back in March after a neighbor notified Meehan that his name had been forged. A number of forgeries and other irregularities surfaced when Lentz's campaign scoured the petitions.
"Of the two campaigns here today, his is the only campaign under active investigation by the attorney generals office for . . . fraud," Lentz said."