2009-11-19 / Local & State

Corbett: House GOP Officials Didn’t Raise Red Flag

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The ranks of current and former state House Republican legislators, prosecutors allege, are littered with people whose election day efforts benefited from the illegal use of taxpayer-paid resources.

Meanwhile, the Republican floor leader since 2003, Rep. Sam Smith of Jefferson County, even signed contracts, received information and sat in on meetings that prosecutors allege had a connection to the illegal diversion of public money and resources.

But, before investigators began asking questions in 2007, nobody – no House GOP representative or employee – apparently ever voiced concern about such allegedly illegal activity to the office of Attorney General Tom Corbett.

“Not to my knowledge,’’ Corbett said Thursday after announcing charges against former House Speaker John Perzel and nine other current or former employees of the House GOP or Perzel’s campaign.

The nearly three-year investigation began in early 2007, prompted by the revelation by The Patriot-News of Harrisburg about secret bonuses doled out by legislative leaders.

Last year, Corbett’s office charged 12 people connected to the House Democratic caucus in alleged schemes to use taxpayer dollars, including the bonuses, to fuel political activities. On Thursday, Corbett revealed the results of his investigation thus far into the House Republicans.

Perzel, of Philadelphia, was the only sitting Republican lawmaker charged Thursday. He lost both the speakership and control of the caucus when Democrats won the House majority in late 2006. Smith, who had been the caucus’ second-ranking official, took the reins.

The 188-page grand jury presentment released by Corbett on Thursday mentions Smith’s name no fewer than 11 times in the course of describing the alleged commingling of political and taxpayer-paid activity.

In some instances, Smith signed millions of dollars worth of contracts for a New Orleans company called GCR & Associates Inc. that, prosecutors allege, provided computer-driven methods to compile and sort voter data. That information ended up being used in political campaigns, Corbett said.

At other times before 2007, Smith sat in on meetings or received information, such as an email, that allegedly discussed the use of GCR or caucus employees for political work.

Smith, who did not respond to numerous requests for comment through his spokesman on Thursday and Friday, was not charged with any wrongdoing. In a report last year by The Philadelphia Inquirer on grand jury scrutiny of the GCR contracts, Smith said the database had never been used for political purposes and served a legitimate government function.

In a statement released Thursday, Smith called the charges “alarming and shocking.’’ He wrote that since he assumed leadership of the caucus from Perzel, he has worked to put in place policies to keep political work separate from legislative work.

“It was always my understanding that we paid people – with campaign dollars – to work on campaigns and did not use legislative money to pay for that work,’’ Smith wrote.

Asked Friday about prosecutors’ conclusions on Smith’s involvement in or knowledge of illegal activity, Corbett’s spokesman Kevin Harley declined comment. But, Harley noted, the investigation into the House GOP is continuing.

Beginning in 2000 through 2006, Perzel directed taxpayerpaid information, computer equipment and caucus employees to be used on election day on behalf of himself and numerous other House Republican candidates, Corbett said.

The first full-scale use of a taxpayer financed strategy to speedily identify reliable Republican voters who had not voted allegedly took place in the 2002 special election in the 176th legislative district won by Mario Scavello.

Scavello, R-Monroe, said he never suspected then or afterward that taxpayer money had helped fuel that election day effort.

“No, my god no,’’ Scavello said Friday.

Scavello and several other House Republicans whose elections surfaced in the presentment said they were aware of a House Republican Campaign Committee presence on election day.

But, they said, they had not been briefed on the strategy, and were absorbed in their own duties – knocking on doors, making phone calls or handing out literature. They assumed the committee’s activity was financed by campaign donations and never heard differently until rumors began circulating during Corbett’s investigation, they said.

“This was all tightly held info,’’ Rep. Karen Beyer, R-Lehigh, who was elected in 2005, said Friday. “The average rank-and-file member, we never would have known this.’’

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