HARRISBURG, PA—A central witness for the prosecution in the public corruption trial of former state Rep. Mike Veon testified Tuesday that Veon issued the go-ahead to illegally reward legislative employees who did campaign work with taxpayer-financed bonuses.
"I brought (Veon) a list of volunteers from the last campaign and said, 'Can we get these people something extra?"' Mike Manzo told a Dauphin County jury that will decide the fate of Veon and three former House Democratic aides. Manzo testified that Veon said "OK."
Manzo, who at the time was chief of staff to House Democratic leader Bill DeWeese of Greene County, said he approached Veon in 2004 about the bonuses because "it actually would have been odd to go to Bill with anything financial."
Manzo, who pleaded guilty to related charges last month as part of an agreement to cooperate with prosecutors, was the first witness in what is expected to be a monthlong trial. His testimony should resume Wednesday.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Blessington displayed for the jury a series of e-mails regarding the bonuses in which Veon and co-defendant Brett Cott were either copied in or active participants, while Manzo provided commentary on them.
High-ranking House Democratic staffers discussed the bonuses in detail, including which employees deserved them, how large they should be and how to distribute them to maximize their motivational power while hiding the process from the public.
The e-mails linked bonuses to work on specific campaigns from Philadelphia to Butler County, as well as the coordinated effort by Democrats to have presidential candidate Ralph Nader thrown off the Pennsylvania ballot in 2004.
Manzo said the use of bonuses to motivate campaign volunteers was spawned by Democratic frustration with being in the minority in the House as well as a need to counter the Republicans' superior fundraising capacity. He said he was not sure who first came up with the idea.
"Once we started rewarding these people, the level of volunteerism went through the ceiling," Manzo said.
In 2006, Democrats recaptured a House majority for the first time in 12 years, but Veon was defeated.
In opening statements earlier Tuesday, lawyers for Cott and defendant Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink both stressed that their clients never had the authority to grant bonuses to anyone and had reputations as workhorses in their 9-to-5 House jobs.
"Politics, campaigning and legislation are intertwined," said Cott's lawyer, Bryan Walk. "It's like a big ball of yarn."
Attorney Michael Palermo said the legislative office that Perretta-Rosepink ran for Veon in Beaver Falls was as busy as any in the state.
"I'm going to show you she did more than 40 hours of work a week, every week," Palermo told jurors.
Lawyers for Veon and co-defendant Stephen A.H. Keefer made opening statements Monday.
In January 2007, news first broke that millions in bonuses had been quietly handed out to General Assembly employees, prompting the investigation in which 25 people have so far been charged.
Manzo and six other former House Democratic staffers who pleaded guilty are awaiting sentencing. The only defendant to go on trial so far - former Rep. Sean Ramaley, a Democrat from Beaver - was acquitted in December.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)