The lucrative salary for the House Republicans' chief counsel in Harrisburg doesn't pass the smell test.

Former Rep. Brett Feese of Lycoming County retired from the General Assembly in December 2006, at the peak of voter anger over secret pay raises and outrageous perks for legislators. But Feese didn't stray from Harrisburg in his golden years.

Instead, he got himself an even better deal courtesy of taxpayers. House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) hired Feese as chief counsel, with a state salary of $155,000. And what most people didn't know at the time was that Feese also got a second contract to serve as the Republicans' in-house litigator.

His additional contract was worth $95,000. The total compensation of $250,000 per year - an outrageous amount for a glorified aide - made Feese the highest paid legislative staffer in Pennsylvania. It also made him better paid than any public official. Gov. Rendell earns slightly more than $170,000; Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron Castille is paid $180,300; and House Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) earns $118,196.

After The Inquirer reported on Feese's extra-sweet deal, House Republicans backtracked momentarily. Feese gave back his extra pay, while Smith promised to check with the state ethics commission on whether the arrangement was legal.

State law says: "No public official or public employee . . . shall enter into any contract valued at $500 or more with the governmental body with which the public official or public employee is associated . . . unless the contract has been awarded through an open and public process, including prior public notice and subsequent public disclosure."

Only someone interpreting this law in favor of an old political pal would think it permitted Feese's separate contract. Apparently the ethics commission had reservations about Feese's contract, too, because Feese and Smith have worked out a new deal. Instead of a contract, Feese will be paid a salary of $197,000 - $42,000 more in base pay, but less than his earlier overall package.

Smith said Feese was worth the money because the House GOP was saving hundreds of thousands of dollars that it previously spent on outside law firms.

Maybe it will save a few dollars, but that money comes from the black hole of a discretionary legislative account controlled by Smith. It remains to be seen whether the money "saved" will go back to taxpayers or will be spent on some other questionable leadership priority

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, such as political polling. Legislative leaders have guarded their wasteful slush funds fiercely against accountability.

As for the choice of Feese himself, it smacks of chummy pension-padding. Smith didn't advertise for the job; he simply plucked unilaterally a colleague on whom he could rely. There were doubtless many qualified outside candidates.

Feese, 53, was already in line to receive an annual state pension of $34,000. With his higher state salary, his pension will jump to about $85,600 per year. Nice gig if you can get it.

This salary for a legislative staffer is way out of whack. When the legislature considers trimming staff next year, one of the first things it should trim is Feese's exorbitant compensation.