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Raise for GOP counsel raises eyebrows

HARRISBURG - The controversial compensation package for a former top Pennsylvania representative has changed yet again, and this time Brett Feese likely will see his state pension jump as a result.

HARRISBURG - The controversial compensation package for a former top Pennsylvania representative has changed yet again, and this time Brett Feese likely will see his state pension jump as a result.

Feese, a former Appropriations Committee chairman from Lycoming County, is now making a state salary of $197,000 as chief counsel for House Republicans. That's $42,000 more in base pay than what he had been making.

GOP leaders gave the raise Nov. 21 after nixing a separate $95,000 contract for Feese to serve as in-house litigator for the caucus. That figure was in addition to his $155,000 salary as chief counsel.

It is the latest twist in Feese's pay structure since The Inquirer raised questions, including whether his contract ran afoul of state law. Attempts to reach him for comment in this article were unsuccessful.

Critics, including Gov. Rendell, are calling his new salary exorbitant.

The $197,000 exceeds the salary of anyone else in the executive, judicial or legislative branch of state government. Rendell makes just more than $170,000 annually.

"To pay someone like that $50,000, $60,000 more than what the speaker of the House makes doesn't make any sense at all," Rendell said in an interview last week.

House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) makes $118,896.

As they did in the past, House Republican leaders insist that the salary is a bargain: Feese handles most of the caucus' courtroom work previously farmed out to pricey law firms.

"You have a guy with 30 years' worth of experience. He has earned his stripes. I don't view it as excessive in light of what we had spent on outside legal fees in the past," said Anthony Aliano, chief of staff to House Republican Leader Sam Smith.

During the last six years, House Republicans averaged $425,000 annually in outside legal costs for a variety of cases, including labor disputes, constitutional issues and enacted legislation. In the first 10 months of this year with Feese on board, they spent just $48,000 on outside firms, records show.

The story of Feese's pay package dates to his decision last year not to seek reelection in his Williamsport-based district.

The chief counsel for the House Republicans was leaving, and Feese wanted the job. House leaders wanted him, too, seeing him as a seasoned politician and litigator. He was Lycoming County district attorney before joining the House in 1994.

Initially, Feese and Smith (R., Jefferson) agreed on a package that would pay Feese $155,000 annually as chief counsel and $95,000 under a separate contract to serve as in-house litigator. The money came from a House discretionary account controlled by Smith, and the contract started the day after Feese left office, Dec. 1, 2006.

Many in Harrisburg knew of Feese's salary, but few had heard of the additional contract until The Inquirer reported it in October.

The Inquirer later reported that the additional pay might violate a state law that bars public officials and workers from having separate contracts with their employers on top of their salaries.

Smith soon suspended the contract, and Feese repaid the state $79,000 - what he had made in his first 10 months of the contract.

At the time, Smith said he considered the litigation work part of Feese's overall compensation and therefore not a violation. Nonetheless, he said he would let the state Ethics Commission decide.

He never sought that opinion, opting instead to discuss the matter informally with commission staff members.

After those discussions, Smith and Feese reached a compromise: They would end Feese's contract, but pay him more under his state salary for the dual duties.

Aliano said the $197,000 package was an even better deal for taxpayers than the combined $250,000 of Feese's previous salary and contract.

But Feese's contract didn't factor into his pension. His salary does.

With his 12 years of service as a representative, Feese, 53, already was in line for about $34,000 annually in pension. His role as chief counsel sets him up for a much larger pension - and, with the raise, it will be even bigger.

After three years of making $155,000, Feese would have been entitled to about $67,400 yearly after reaching retirement age of 60. After three years under his new salary, that figure would jump to about $85,600, according to a formula used by the state's pension system.

"The gravy train continues," said Gene Stilp, a longtime Harrisburg activist who on Monday asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate Feese's outside contract. "Christmas came early for Brett Feese."