HARRISBURG - Prosecutors have offered former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, one of Pennsylvania's most influential Democrats, a chance to testify before the so-called Bonusgate grand jury, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.
Gov. Rendell confirmed yesterday that a similar written offer went last week to a member of his cabinet - Revenue Secretary Stephen Stetler, a former state representative.
Legal experts say such letters are akin to federal prosecutors' "target letters" and typically signal that state authorities are close to deciding whether to bring criminal charges against the recipients.
DeWeese (D., Greene) and Stetler are the highest-ranking Democrats known to have received such offers from prosecutors in the three-year inquiry, which has produced charges against legislators and their aides from both parties. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) also had received one of the letters. Efforts to reach Eachus for comment were unsuccessful.
Numerous efforts to reach DeWeese for comment yesterday were also unsuccessful. His lawyer, Walter Cohen, a former acting state attorney general, declined to comment on whether his client had received such an offer, citing grand-jury secrecy rules.
But Cohen said DeWeese had cooperated fully with Attorney General Tom Corbett's investigation, "even before it went into a grand jury in August 2007. And he will continue to do so."
Kevin Harley, Corbett's spokesman, declined to comment.
At 59, DeWeese is one of the state's most recognizable political characters, known for his voluminous vocabulary and elegant floor speeches. He has served in the House since 1976 and was speaker during the 1993-94 term.
DeWeese, who has spent the better part of three years denying any involvement in the secret scheme at the heart of the Bonusgate probe, will have a chance to tell a grand jury that personally.
Such testimony would be voluntary and given without a grant of immunity.
Rendell yesterday lauded as "great" the work Stetler has done as revenue secretary, a post he has held since last year. "He has my full confidence," Rendell told reporters at an unrelated news conference outside his Capitol offices. "Obviously, if something happens, we will deal with that at the appropriate time."
Stetler oversees an agency with 2,100 employees and a $136 million budget.
Rendell told reporters it was his understanding that Stetler planned to testify. Asked about that moments later, Rendell chief of staff Steve Crawford said Stetler had told him he would "cooperate" with authorities. Crawford would not elaborate.
Attempts to reach Stetler and his lawyer, Joshua Lock, were unsuccessful yesterday.
DeWeese, whose district is in the state's southwestern corner, was House majority leader when the payment scheme that gave Bonusgate its name was allegedly occurring.
He has repeatedly denied knowledge of the program that awarded state bonuses to legislative staffers for working on political campaigns. DeWeese said he delegated administrative duties to staff and lower-rung legislators.
As the bonus scheme came to light, DeWeese hired outside consultants to deal with Corbett's office and beef up ethics policies in the House Democrats' caucus.
He has since faced a political demotion and now serves as majority whip, the caucus' third-ranking member.
News of prosecutors' letters to DeWeese and Stetler surfaced even as Dauphin County jurors were being chosen for the first Bonusgate trial. Opening statements in the trial of former State Rep. Sean Ramaley (D., Beaver) are expected to start today.
Ramaley faces allegations that he was paid as a "ghost" House employee when he was really campaigning for a House seat. He and 11 others associated with the House Democratic caucus were charged in July 2008.
DeWeese's former chief of staff, Michael Manzo, was among those charged and is cooperating with authorities in a plea deal.
The letters received by DeWeese and Stetler are believed to be similar to those that Corbett's prosecutors sent this fall to 10 people with ties to the House Republican caucus. All 10 - including Rep. John M. Perzel (R., Phila.), another former speaker of the House - were criminally charged in the probe Nov. 12.
Perzel is accused of using $10 million in public money to build sophisticated databases that gave Republicans an advantage in elections. He has said he did nothing improper and accused Corbett, a fellow Republican, of using the investigation to advance his campaign for governor next year.
Stetler, 60, left the House in 2006 after representing York County for 16 years. He had also headed the House Democratic Campaign Committee, the caucus' political arm.
Some of his actions in that role drew the attention of Bonusgate investigators, the Post-Gazette reported in June. The paper said Stetler allegedly had rejected a plan to shift political work - "opposition research" on opposing candidates - from state-paid legislative staffers to a private company.
The Post-Gazette said Dan Wiedemer, a former Democratic campaign aide, had told the grand jury that Stetler killed the idea because House Democrats "have a perfectly good system in place already." Stetler said hiring a firm would be too costly, Wiedemer reportedly testified.