Public Financing: PA taxpayers paying for all sides in Bonusgate probe

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Pity the poor taxpayer. As the probe into the state’s Bonusgate scandal widens the cost of prosecuting – and defending – those under investigation is skyrocketing. And, we the taxpayers of Penn’s woods are getting stuck paying the bill for both sides.

For those not paying attention, Bonusgate is the name wags have given to Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett’s investigation into the connection between bonuses paid to legislative staffers who also did or do campaign work. At issue is whether or not state compensation was promised, and state government resources, used to supplement political campaign activities.

The lines between legislative work, particularly so-called "constituent service" activities and campaign work have been blurred for decades, perhaps since the founding of the commonwealth. Although it might be argued that William Penn never sent his assistants, quill pens and parchment in hand, to track the location of political lawn signs.

In the first round of indictments handed down by the statewide investigative grand jury Mr. Corbett has looking into this matter, it is alleged that the House Democratic caucus systemically tied extra compensation, and used legislative staff to conduct political work. Thus far the investigation has prematurely ended the career of one sitting legislator and placed several staffers in legal jeopardy.

But the probe did not end there. In fact, last week the Attorney General empanelled a second statewide investigative grand jury because the first was dedicating so much of its time to Bonusgate it was slowing progress toward investigating other unrelated allegations of corruption. This would point to an expanding of the Bonusgate probe rather than a winding down of the investigation. It is logical to assume many more months of grand jury testimony lie ahead.

The bonuses in question totaled $3.7 million. That is a substantial sum, but it has been dwarfed by the $5.8 million – and rising by the day – in taxpayer dollars that have been spent by the legislature on legal representation for its members and staff. That’s right; our tax dollars are being used to pay for the defense of those under investigation by the Attorney General for abusing our money.

Wait, it gets worse. Consider the cost of investigating and prosecuting the case. A spokesman for the Office of Attorney General says the costs are "negligible" and are being easily absorbed by the current budget. That is not possible. An investigation that takes this long and has become this far reaching surely must be draining resources from other worthwhile pursuits. And then there is the cost of operating the grand jury, again not likely a small sum.

Thus, the cost to taxpayers is substantially higher than the $8.5 million spent on the initial bonuses, and on defense money that has so far been documented. Likely, when the costs of prosecution are added in, the tab exceeds $10 million. And we aren’t done yet. In fact, we are nowhere near done.

Even if no additional indictments are issued, and Attorney General Corbett is strongly hinting more are in the pipeline, trials must still be held for those already facing charges. The investigative grand jury has months of work ahead of it, again at a substantial cost to taxpayers. And, as more staffers and legislators are called before the grand jury, more bills will be given to taxpayers to cover the cost of their defense. In the end, the total tab for this scandal could well top $20 million – this at a time the commonwealth faces a $2 billion budget deficit.

This is not to say that Bonusgate should not be investigated. It should and to the fullest extent of the law. Rather all this illustrates the tremendous economic cost the perpetrators of this scandal have inflicted on state taxpayers. Particularly egregious is the fact we are paying defense costs. Certainly, at a bare minimum, anyone who is ultimately convicted should be required as part of their punishment to reimburse the state treasury for any taxpayer paid legal representation they received.

Hopefully, when the final chapter of this saga is written, we will at least emerge with a General Assembly more focused on doing the people’s business than in running an incumbent protection program. There is a time and place for such political activities. As many are learning that time and place is not under the capitol dome on the taxpayer’s dollar.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])

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