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Bonehead-Gate

Can we at least have some effective graft for a change?

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"Politics" is not a dirty word.

-- Mike Veon

In the days since former state Rep. Michael Veon and 11 others were indicted in the "Bonusgate" scandal, there has been no end to the sordid revelations. Perhaps the most pathetic, though, involves the Allentown Fishing Expedition.

In this little-noted episode, three legislative staffers received taxpayer-funded bonuses for circulating campaign literature for a 2005 special election in Allentown. Such activities were at the heart of Bonusgate, in which Democrats allegedly directed more than $1 million in bonuses to employees doing election work while on the state payroll.

But in this case, there was a crucial difference: The Allentown staffers never handed out any literature. Instead, a Harrisburg grand jury indictment reveals, they "went to breakfast, threw away the campaign literature, and went fishing."

They got the bonus anyway, staffer Dan Reese testified before the grand jury: "We all joked that we are professional fishermen now."

This is the problem with Democrats: They can't even run a decent election scam. Reese and Co. got their bonus even though the candidate they were supposed to help, Linda Minger, lost. Are Democrats actually rewarding people for losing campaigns, or not bothering to contest them at all? That would explain a lot, actually, and not just in Harrisburg.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. But when I find out that my tax dollars are being handed out as a bonus for campaign work ... I at least expect the campaign to be successful.

If I sound jaded, I suspect I'm not alone. When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered an online "Reader Forum" for visitors to weigh in on the scandal, only about a dozen people bothered to voice their outrage. By contrast, nearly 60 visitors posted comments on turmoil in the Steelers front office two days before.

Such apathy may be surprising at first. (I mean, only 60 people wanted to talk about the Steelers?) But the lackluster response to Bonusgate makes a certain amount of sense.

While state Attorney General Tom Corbett has largely focused on Democrats in the state House, it's hard to believe that Republicans -- or Democrats in the Senate -- are much cleaner. One legislative staffer, for example, testified before the grand jury about working on the 2006 campaign of Shawn Flaherty. Flaherty, you may recall, was running for the seat of Republican Jeff Habay, who'd been convicted of ... using legislative staffers to work on campaigns.

Even progressives have been touched by the scandal. Among the dozen people charged in Bonusgate is Patrick J. Lavelle, a former staffer for Pittsburgh city Councilor Bill Peduto, a staunch reformer. The Veon quote at the head of this article, in fact, was spoken at an October 2006 "Progressives for a Democratic State House" event at East Liberty's Shadow Lounge -- an event hosted by Peduto himself.

At the time, many good-government types were shocked that Peduto would stand beside Veon, who was already a lightning rod for allegations about ethical improprieties. But as Peduto argued, there's more to Veon's character than a pay-raise scandal. Despite representing a Reagan-Democrat district, Veon has been pro-choice as well as a vocal advocate of gay rights and environmental causes.

The same could be said for a Democrat on the other side of the state, Philadelphia's Vince Fumo, who is facing ethics charges of his own. Sean Ramaley -- the Beaver County Democrat who is the only active legislator charged (so far) in the scandal -- has been a reliable vote for workers and the environment as well.

There's already talk about what this scandal will mean for Democrats in November. It sure can't help: Ramaley was running for seat in the state Senate, where Democrats are in the minority. In any case, it's past time for Democratic House leader Bill DeWeese to step down from his leadership post. If he's not indicted, it can only be because Corbett believes he was completely clueless. As someone who thinks a performance-based approach to graft would be a step forward, I find that almost as distressing as the possibility that DeWeese knew what was going on.

My hope, if you want to call it that, is that this November, voters will decide that neither party has shown it can clear the air inside the Capitol. And so they'll stick with the party that is at least willing to protect the environment outside it.

Someday, though, it would be nice not to have to make that choice at all.

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