Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
After decades of dominating life in the state capitol, two of Harrisburg’s political titans may be heading to the slammer.
Former Rep. Mike Veon (D-Beaver), the House Democrats’ second-in-command behind Rep. Bill DeWeese (D-Greene), has been indicted for conspiracy, conflict of interest, theft of services, and theft by deception. According to the indictment by Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, Veon ran a full-time, around-the-clock campaign operation out of his state government offices. That’s staff time, office space, printing, postage, mileage, etc. paid for by you, the taxpayer, for official government work that was never performed.
What’s worse, this theft of taxpayer resources was turned into an illegal, unreported, multi-million-dollar in-kind contribution to state House political campaigns, which rarely cost as much as $100,000. Although salacious details about ghost-employee mistresses grabbed the headlines, the charges against Veon and the others reveal a dangerous, extra-constitutional use of the state against the will of the voters – a direct threat to our system of representative self-government. Veon’s trial will almost certainly prove that this multi-million-dollar theft of taxpayer resources is what "won" the House Democrats their one-seat majority in November 2006. (Corbett’s investigation was triggered by the revelation of taxpayer-funded bonuses paid to House Democrat Caucus employees for political work.)
The attorney general is also investigating the Beaver Initiative for Growth (BIG), a shell "economic development" entity created and run by Veon and state Sen. Gerald LaValle (D-Beaver), who is retiring rather than face the voters again. Veon and LaValle apparently used the corrupt non-profit group to divert state taxpayer dollars to their relatives and political cronies. Sen. LaValle’s wife Darla, who ran a BIG-funded non-profit that existed primarily to pay her a large salary, has been arraigned on charges of theft. As they say: more to follow.
On the other side of the commonwealth, the public corruption trial of state Sen. Vince Fumo (D-Philadelphia) is underway, where he faces a federal indictment that could result in five to 15 years in prison if convicted on all 139 charges, including conspiracy, fraud, tax violations, and obstruction of justice.
The legendary "Vince of Darkness" has beaten the rap twice before, but, with federal prosecutors having turned members of Fumo’s inner circle, the South Philly powerhouse is facing long odds. Following a heart attack earlier this year and facing a four-way Democrat primary in April, Fumo folded his re-election bid and will leave office in January 2009 (if not before).
For many years the minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Fumo is the exemplar of machine politics as it is practiced in Harrisburg, with Fumo acting as broker for a never-ending series of logrolling, pork-barreling deals. According to federal prosecutors, Fumo (already a millionaire by inheritance) is obsessed with spending "other people’s money" or "OPM", as he puts it. The indictment says Fumo shook down corporations and utilities for "contributions" to a non-profit he controlled, which then paid for Fumo’s personal and political desires. The feds say he looted another non-profit where he was a board member; he spent taxpayer dollars from the Senate Democrat Caucus on private detectives he had trailing his former girlfriends and ex-wife; he had a Pennsylvania Turnpike employee serving as full-time property manager at his country estate north of Harrisburg. The list goes on and on – remember, Fumo has been in the Senate for thirty years! In all, Fumo’s "take" is estimated to be at least $3.5 million.
This is business-as-usual in Harrisburg as it has been for a very long time. The midnight pay grab in 2005 set in motion the events that are still playing out. A Supreme Court justice was unseated, the Senate President Pro Tempore and Majority Leader were defeated in primaries, and the state House has been thrown into deadlock. Now, major political figures are being brought to trial. With Attorney General Corbett’s investigations still underway, capitol insiders are waiting for the next revelation and its political repercussions.
One way or another, Harrisburg is about to change. For Pennsylvania’s job-creators and pro-growth advocates, dismantling the taxpayer-funded graft machine is the first step toward reforming state government and re-prioritizing public policy away from boodling, back-scratching, and featherbedding and toward building a stronger economy. Remember, machine politics has no ideology and doing favors for your friends with the taxpayers’ money undermines the public trust – no matter which political party is doing it. In fact, the tribal partisanship in Harrisburg has itself played a role in state government’s addiction to overspending, as fiscal restraint has been discarded in the competition to see which side can bring home the most bacon.
Here’s hoping the cautionary tales of Mike Veon, Vince Fumo, and the Ghost of Prosecutions Yet to Come will chasten whoever makes it back to the capitol for Inauguration Day 2009.