HARRISBURG - A Pittsburgh lobbyist yesterday called "disgusting and insulting" suggestions that she took advantage of her connection with Gov. Rendell to help establish a $75 million tax credit for the film industry.
In e-mails to several media outlets, Leslie Merrill McCombs, a 35-year-old former news anchor, also attacked as "slanderous" efforts by State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), who has vowed to get to the bottom of the behind-the-scenes tax credit lobbying effort, even going as far as to hire private detectives.
"Clearly, it is being suggested that I have an inappropriate relationship with the Governor. That suggestion is disgusting and insulting, and I am appalled that an elected public official can get away with such slanderous behavior," McCombs wrote in the e-mail. "It is deeply hurtful to me and my family."
McCombs' comments yesterday are the latest twist in what has become a growing controversy that is now dominating water-cooler talk throughout the state Capitol and beyond.
It started two weeks ago with a story on Capitolwire.com.
The Harrisburg-based online news service reported that McCombs had lobbied on behalf of Lionsgate, a film production company in Santa Monica, Calif. But she had not registered with the state as working for the company as required by a 2006 state law.
McCombs had represented Lionsgate in the months leading up to the adoption of the tax credit for companies that agree to produce TV shows and movies in the state. The credit was a last-minute addition to the state budget this summer.
Yesterday, she described her failure to register as "my technical and brief noncompliance" that has since been corrected. She also called it "a flimsy nonissue" that is now "being leveraged by some for political reasons."
After learning that McCombs had not registered, Piccola, chairman of the State Government Committee, said he would hold hearings on the matter. He is now finalizing a contract with a private detective firm to conduct interviews and research on the issue.
In an e-mail, McCombs accused Piccola of suggesting her relationship with the governor was sexual.
The Inquirer asked: "Are you alleging someone is suggesting that your relationship with the governor is or was sexual?"
"Yes. Piccola," she responded.
Piccola steadfastly denied ever doing so.
"Everyone in the world is talking about that except me," said Piccola, who toyed with the idea of running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2006.
Piccola said yesterday that he has intentionally kept his remarks focused on the "cozy relationship we develop on Capitol Hill."
In a prepared statement and follow-up interview with Capitolwire.com earlier this month, Piccola referred several times to a "relationship" between McCombs and Rendell.
"I don't know the particulars of the relationship," Piccola told the news service. "But I expect that probably because of relationship, people think they can get around the law, get around certain statutes, they feel empowered because of the relationships."
Press reports have indicated that McCombs, a former Fox TV reporter in Pittsburgh, was a dinner chum of Rendell's and they had been seen together at sporting events. She is a lobbyist for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
In the e-mail, McCombs, who is married, describes herself as a "friend and supporter of Governor Rendell's." In February of last year, she contributed $3,000 to Rendell's reelection effort, campaign records show.
Lionsgate is a leading independent studio whose current releases include the western 3:10 to Yuma. It has also produced The Kill Point, a Spike TV series shot in Pittsburgh. McCombs, as an actress, has appeared in several episodes.
Rendell's press secretary, Chuck Ardo, said the governor would have no comment on McCombs' remarks yesterday.
But on Monday, the governor acknowledged that he didn't know McCombs was representing Lionsgate at the time she was working for the tax credit.
"I probably should have under the law," he said on Monday.
The governor called McCombs "probably the biggest pain in the neck" when it comes to pursuing causes in the Pittsburgh area. When it came to the tax credit, Rendell said he was already backing the idea when McCombs came lobbying earlier this year.
"In terms of persuading me, I was on board with this idea when I was mayor of Philadelphia," Rendell said. ". . . I was waiting for the right time to put this in, and I believe that this year was the right time."