Attorney General Tom Corbett: First in a three-part interview
As Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Tom Corbett finds himself in an interesting political position. On the one hand, he is routinely mentioned as a Republican front runner for the 2010 governor’s race, yet he is locked in a fierce re-election battle. Conventional wisdom says that if he loses, his run for governor is dead, and if he wins, the margin will determine his gubernatorial momentum. A razor-thin victory would show Corbett to be mortal, while a win of three points or more, given the dire predictions for the GOP in November, would give him a tremendous boost.
With twelve indictments in the "Bonus Gate" scandal under his belt, including two guilty pleas, and possibly more to come after the election, the Commonwealth’s top law enforcement officer is aggressively campaigning across the state, making his case that he should be returned to Harrisburg. His administration is not without controversy, however, as some opponents charge that his investigations are politically motivated. Freindly Fire recently sat down with Mr. Corbett for an in-depth interview:
TB: You are perhaps best known for your investigation into Harrisburg’s "Bonus Gate" scandal, in which legislators and staff are accused of using taxpayer money to perform campaign work. To date, 12 have been indicted, all Democrats. However, you have come under criticism from some quarters for what they say is a political witch-hunt, since no Republicans have been indicted. How do you answer the charge that your investigation is politically motivated to help you and your Party?
TC: First, this is an investigation that was handed to us back in January, 2007. We didn’t find this, and we didn’t create this. Bonuses were paid. When you are conducting an investigation, you have to prioritize. One of our first priorities was: "Who spent the most money?" In this case, it was the Democratic Caucus, which had $1.8 million in bonuses paid out, which was more than the other caucuses combined. So that would be a logical first place for any prosecutor — Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green or Libertarian — to look, and to apply your resources to that area.
While we were conducting the investigation, it appeared that documents were in the process of being destroyed! Hmmm….if you’re destroying documents, are you trying to cover something up? So a search warrant was issued, we went in, and we recovered 20 boxes of documents that turned out to be a great deal of opposition research conducted by state employees, that appeared to be done on state time. We reached a stage when decisions had to be made about what becomes public and what doesn’t. That investigation continues, and in the meantime, we are conducting investigations of the other three caucuses, but I don’t have the resources of 500 agents, so we take this in stages.
TB: To date, what are investigation’s results?
TC: We charged the first 12, and two have just pled guilty—they testified at the preliminary hearing. When you’re building a multi-faceted investigation into white collar crime, it can go down many avenues, and that’s exactly what this one has been doing. Look, I know I’m in a difficult position, because I really can’t comment on what we’re doing. My opponent says he’s not attacking my integrity, but he really is. My reputation is doing things by the book, and that’s how we’re conducting this investigation. By the book.
TB: "Attacking your integrity"? Why? Because no Republicans have been indicted?
TC: Quite honestly, I’ve convicted more Republicans than Democrats since I’ve been Attorney General. Not necessarily in the Bonus investigation but in many other investigations. Going into Delaware County and convicting Republican township officials — as a Republican— isn’t noted by the press around the state; they kind of forget that. The case against (former state representative Jeff Habay), although charged before I became Attorney General, was completed while I was Attorney General. He was a Republican, and my state representative! But we didn’t back off. I hope the people of Pennsylvania will understand that I, as a prosecutor, will follow the evidence where it leads. I don’t look at "party designation". The only reason we’re looking at that in this case is because it was the parties and caucuses that gave out this money. It was they who had employees working on state time doing political campaign work. That’s inescapable in this regard. As far as the timing of my election, do I wish it were next year or two years ago? Sure. But I can’t control that. We have moved this investigation along at a very quick pace. And back before the April primary, I made the announcement that we wouldn’t do anything in the month before the November election. People forget that. But it’s an unwritten rule I took from the Department of Justice that you don’t file charges 30 days before an election.
But that’s academic, because with all the information we have to get and the number of people we have to get in front of a grand jury, we couldn’t get it done (file charges) even if we wanted to. Politically, the easiest thing to do would be to go out and say "I’m going to charge this Republican and that Republican," and would I charge them with one-tenth of what we potentially have, just to say I charged them, possibly losing the other 90%. But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to lose an entire case just to extinguish the complaint — and it would never be extinguished — that I’m not going after Republicans. We are investigating everybody. I just ask the people to have patience to see the end result of that.
TB: There are those who say you deliberately stayed away from indicting Republicans because you need their resources and support for both this election, and possibly a primary run for governor in 2010?
TC: When you indict individuals of both parties, they’re not necessarily going to want to help you. This isn’t for getting re-elected, and it’s not about running for another office. This is about one thing and one thing only: doing the job that I took an oath to do. Facts were presented to us, we’ve investigated, and so far we’ve announced that which we’re allowed to announce at this point in time. These investigations often come in stages. Anyone who has conducted investigations like this, and my opponent is certainly not one of them, understands that sometimes you bring charges brought against one group, that often leads to additional charges. Not necessarily to that group, but down the road against other individuals. It’s called building a case.
Christopher Freind can be reached at [email protected]