HARRISBURG - Taxpayer-funded bonuses were given to state legislative employees for their work on election campaigns, according to e-mail messages exchanged by top aides in the Democratic caucus starting in 2004, a newspaper reported yeterday.

The e-mail messages, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, are a key part of an investigation by state Attorney General Tom Corbett into the bonuses and whether they constituted an illegal use of state money for political work.

A group of aides, at points working under the direction of then-House Minority Whip Michael Veon (D., Beaver), rated the political work of state employees, sometimes adjusting the amounts of the bonuses based on time they spent in the field, the paper said.

"Mainly, I based my decisions on the number of days people spent in the field," director of Democratic member services Eric Webb wrote in one of the e-mails. "But a few people were bumped up for extra efforts, like being a phone bank captain" or "helping with the Spanish phone bank."

The system took shape at least three years ago, when a cadre of top House aides began tracking campaign hours put in by Democratic caucus employees and then tied them to taxpayer-funded salary bonuses, the Post-Gazette reported.

Three spreadsheets attached to an Aug. 31, 2005, e-mail by Webb ranked caucus employees as "rock stars," "good" and "OK," and assigned bonuses according to those rankings.

House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese provided thousands of e-mail exchanges now at the core of the state attorney general's case. The Post-Gazette said the materials it obtained did not suggest DeWeese was aware of the activity.

DeWeese said he discovered that the bonuses amounted to $1.9 million, after initially being told by staff they were routine seniority and holiday awards, and ordered an internal inquiry before the announcement of a criminal probe by the attorney general.

The in-house probe, led by former prosecutor William Chadwick, turned up tens of thousands of e-mails that had been automatically archived but which most employees thought had been deleted.

On Nov. 13, DeWeese forced out seven top House Democratic aides, including his chief of staff, Michael Manzo, who has denied any wrongdoing. Manzo said last month the bonuses began as an effort to reward Veon's employees, who were expected to be out of work after their boss lost his bid for reelection in 2006.

While the e-mails involve the Democratic caucus, the state attorney general is also investigating complaints of similar activities in the Republican caucus, the paper said.