HARRISBURG - House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese acknowledged yesterday that he forced seven Democratic aides from their jobs after learning about a damning string of e-mails indicating that taxpayer money was used to reward state employees for political work.
The e-mails, written by at least four of the seven staffers who were either fired or asked to resign, were revealed Sunday by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. They are at the heart of an investigation by Attorney General Tom Corbett's office focused on whether legislative employees used government time and resources to benefit political campaigns, which is illegal.
No one has been charged in the case. But the e-mails paint a scathing picture of Harrisburg politics, one in which top House Democratic aides tapped public funds as a way to thank underlings for political work.
In his most expansive comments to date, DeWeese (D., Greene), appearing before The Inquirer's editorial board, said he did not know about the e-mails until earlier this year, nor did he know the extent of the bonuses awarded: $1.9 million to House Democratic employees last year alone.
Asked later whether the e-mails spurred him to force the resignation of the seven staffers, DeWeese said: "When I viewed the election data, I found that [their] employment was not tenable."
Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman, would not comment on the e-mails yesterday. Corbett has said his office is investigating all bonuses, some of which topped $20,000 last year, awarded by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
The Post-Gazette reported that almost all the e-mails regarding bonuses handed out last year had been deleted, and that the Attorney General's Office was investigating the matter. The newspaper did not cite a source for that information.
Still, those and other deleted e-mails that were later retrieved show that the practice of handing out bonuses dates to at least 2004. House aides created a grading system for rewarding staffers. The grades: "OK," "good" and "rock star."
In August 2005, the newspaper reported, one ranking legislative staffer, Eric Webb, sent an e-mail to DeWeese's chief of staff with the names of various employees and their campaign work.
The chief of staff, Michael Manzo, later e-mailed the director of staffing and administration for the House Democratic caucus, Scott Brubaker, saying: "We're thinking about [$1,000] for the rock stars, 500 for the good, 250 for the OK. Thoughts?"
"OK with me," Brubaker replied.
Manzo yesterday referred questions to his attorney, Philadelphia lawyer Jim Eisenhower, who did not return calls. Calls to Brubaker's and Webb's attorneys also were not returned.
Manzo, Brubaker and Webb were part of the group of seven staffers that DeWeese forced out last month.
Another series of e-mails in November 2004 between Manzo and then-Minority Whip Michael Veon appears to demonstrate that bonuses were awarded for political work.
In one e-mail, according to the Post-Gazette, Manzo listed employees who should receive bonuses, and told Veon that the year-end payouts were based on both legislative performance and "outside activities," which included election work.
"Let me know what you think. Would like to have it processed this week so our superstars can enjoy a brighter X Mas," Manzo wrote.
To which Veon, who was voted out of office last year, replied: "List looks good. Want to add some of my [district office] staff. They did lots and lots extra nights and weekends. . . . "
Veon did not return calls yesterday.
That bonus list was later forwarded to Earl J. Mosley, the House Democratic caucus' director of personnel, who after reviewing it made a pitch for himself and a fellow employee: "Any love coming this way . . . ?"
Mosley in a subsequent e-mail detailed the campaign work he and his fellow employee did.
"Trust me, I'm not upset," Mosley wrote, "because in my mind, I thought that if I had gotten anything, it might have been about $250."
Mosley could not be reached for comment yesterday. He was also among the seven staffers forced out of a job last month.
In yet another e-mail, Brubaker apparently suggested that his own bonus was excessive but later thanked Manzo for it.
"Enjoy," Manzo responded. "Get yourself that new truck!!!"
In the interview yesterday, DeWeese said "he wished he had known" about the extent of the bonuses, but that when he suspected something was amiss, he hired an outside firm - Washington-based Chadwick Associates - to do an internal inquiry.
"I needed to be more alert on some of these internal policies, but historically I had very talented people doing it on my watch," he said.
"In the future I will be more subsumed in internal practices."