Former aide ties DeWeese to scandal

The Democratic House leader denied the allegation that he OKd questionable bonuses.

Posted: October 09, 2008

HARRISBURG - For months, House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese has denied any knowledge of the payment of taxpayer-funded bonuses to Democratic staffers for campaign work.

But yesterday, for the first time since sweeping charges were brought in the state investigation known as Bonusgate, DeWeese's name was linked to the scandal. His ex-chief of staff testified in court that DeWeese knew the bonuses were being handed out and approved them.

The explosive accusations by Michael Manzo came as DeWeese, the highest-ranking House Democrat, is waging what many call the fight of his political life to hang on to his leadership position and the legislative seat he has held for three decades.

DeWeese, a Democrat from Greene County in Western Pennsylvania, quickly denied the accusation. He has not been charged in the Bonusgate case, which so far has swept up Manzo and 11 other current or former Democratic legislators and staffers. Prosecutors allege the 12 participated in a massive conspiracy to use tax money and public resources to further political campaigns.

Yesterday afternoon, DeWeese faced reporters and reiterated the position he has held from the start: "I did not do anything wrong."

He also called Manzo, once his most trusted aide, a "desperate, disgruntled former employee" whom he fired late last year for being involved in the scandal.

"His motives are suspect and his opinions are just not credible," DeWeese said, alleging that Manzo had told law enforcement and fellow Democrats that DeWeese had nothing to do with the illegal activity.

Prosecutors with the state Attorney General's Office declined to comment on Manzo's claims against DeWeese and whether they would investigate them.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Tony Krastek said he could "not discuss matters before the grand jury."

"You were all witnesses today to that testimony, you can draw conclusions, you can interpret things," Krastek said.

Manzo made his claims in a surprise appearance in a Dauphin County court yesterday to testify in a preliminary hearing on the case.

Under questioning, Manzo acknowledged that he had begun cooperating with state investigators and he testified that he believed DeWeese knew of - and signed off on - bonuses for Democratic staffers for work on political campaigns.

Manzo's attorney, Jim Eisenhower, said DeWeese also directed that bonuses be given to specific employees. But he would not comment on what corroborating evidence Manzo had for his assertions.

He also would not elaborate on the specifics of Manzo's plea agreement, saying only that Manzo agreed to plead guilty to the most serious charges, and that his cooperation would be made known to the court at sentencing.

Prosecutors allege that Manzo helped orchestrate the widespread conspiracy to identify and assign Democratic House staffers to perform campaign work on the taxpayers' dime.

Prosecutors also say that Manzo, who is married, created a ghost job for a 21-year-old beauty queen with whom he was having an affair.

"He is extremely remorseful for his conduct," Eisenhower said yesterday.

Manzo's wife, Rachel, was also charged in the case. Prosecutors would not say yesterday whether she was cooperating. Her attorney could not be reached for comment.

In addressing reporters yesterday, DeWeese said Manzo had "lied to his wife, lied to his girlfriend, lied to investigators, and lied to me."

DeWeese is in the midst of a tough reelection battle: he faces a former arena football player who nearly defeated him two years ago.

If reelected, he still faces difficulties: several of his fellow Democrats have called on him to resign his leadership position, pointing out that the illegal activity occurred while he ran the Democratic caucus.

On the stand yesterday, Manzo detailed the alleged conspiracy to use state money, time and resources for political gain.

He said that starting in 2004, there was a concerted effort by top Democrats, including DeWeese and former Rep. Mike Veon (D., Beaver), the second-highest-ranking House Democrat, to regain the majority in the House.

A plan was hatched to use House Democratic staffers to work on campaigns. Many of them did not take time off to perform the work, and received handsome bonuses.

Soon, Manzo testified, it became a well-known secret among House Democratic staffers: Work on campaigns and make extra money.

Democrats regained the majority in the House in 2006 by one seat.

Manzo was one of two defendants to admit publicly yesterday that he was cooperating with prosecutors.

Patrick J. Lavelle, a onetime aide to Veon, testified that the Attorney General's Office would drop four of the six charges against him in return for his cooperation.


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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