Good morning. I’m Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA.
The leisurely pace of the Bonus Scandal investigation is about to have consequences.
Born out of political hubris following the Pay Raise and its repeal in 2005, the Bonus Scandal revealed a deeply entrenched culture of corruption and entitlement within the General Assembly. Those who were dumb enough to pass the pay raise in the first place were determined to stick it to taxpayers anyway by awarding illegal bonuses for illegal campaign work.
The Bonus Scandal investigation now has lumbered along for four and a half years. By comparison, it took just two years, one month and 22 days after the break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington DC (June 17, 1972) to force Richard Nixon to resign as President of the United States (August 8, 1974), and that was after the “Saturday Night Massacre” changed the leadership of the Watergate investigation and the government officials responsible for it.
Defendants who have gone to trial in the Bonus Scandal, and some who have only been indicted, have claimed that their illegal use of taxpayer funds for partisan political campaigns was no different from that of many others in the legislature. “Everyone does it,” is the refrain, as if having more public officials break the law makes the activity any less illegal.
Yet after four and a half years, only a handful of legislators have been charged in the House. In the Senate, where employees received more than $440,000 in bonuses following the pay raise and the election of 2006, nothing at all has occurred. Given that the Senate is only one-fourth the size of the House, that amount of bonuses would equal more than $2.2 million on a proportional basis.
What makes this important now is the statute of limitations. The crimes with which Bonus Scandal defendants are charged – a variety of theft charges – have a statute of limitations of five years. Without further prosecutions by the attorney general before sometime in November, those in the General Assembly who may be guilty of crimes will simply laugh all the way to the bank. Their bonuses, even if illegal, are still theirs and will add to their pensions, for which citizens will pay decades into the future.
The Bonus Scandal investigation is remarkable for more than the vast amount of time it has taken to accomplish so little. When the Bonus Scandal broke, we and others urged then-Attorney General Tom Corbett to get a forensic audit of the legislature. He never acknowledged our repeated requests. But a forensic audit is the only way citizens can learn how much money was spent illegally and who was responsible for it. Following the early convictions, there was no doubt that the legislature was – and still is, in my opinion – a crime scene that ought to be cordoned off with yellow tape unless the intervening years have allowed the occupants to scrub away every sign of their crime.
You might think that a forensic audit is an extraordinary request to make, even for crimes that are so serious. Yet just a few weeks ago, the attorney general’s office used a forensic audit to prosecute a Lebanon County police chief who is alleged to have fraudulently overbilled nearly $39,000 dollars.
If a forensic audit is appropriate to document a $39,000 crime, how much more appropriate is it to document crimes worth millions of dollars committed by members and staff in the legislature?
We and other integrity advocates also urged then-Attorney General Corbett to get additional staff so that the investigation could take place with the sense of urgency it deserved. He insisted he didn’t need more help, pursuing the investigation with a “boys-will-be-boys” attitude that still makes him look the other way as governor and approve $48 million in WAMs after promising he would end them, saying he would “drive a stake through the heart of WAMs.”
Now the clock is ticking. Will the new attorney general pursue more alleged crimes in the legislature? Or will the attorney general close the books on the Bonus Scandal as if it were nothing but a third-rate burglary?
Between now and November, we’ll find out the answer to that question.
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