If Harrisburg politicians and government workers weren’t so intent on striking anyone who’s not a member of the two-party establishment off the ballot, a few politicians and aides might not be in jail right now. Or, at least, not for these particular offenses.
But that’s what happened in the case that’s today referred to as Bonusgate. The story is usually told this way: Harrisburg lawmakers voted themselves pay raises in July 2005, which then-Treasurer Bob Casey approved. A few months later, with public pressure mounting, the House and Senate both voted to repeal the raise for themselves. The only vote against: Democratic Rep. Mike Veon of Beaver Falls, who, a year later, lost his re-election campaign.
Shortly after the new class of lawmakers were sworn in the following January, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that several Democratic House employees received large bonuses with this accompanying letter: “Since this bonus payment is of an extraordinary nature not widely received by your colleagues, we cannot stress strongly enough the need for you not to discuss this with any other person or member.”
Rep. DeWeese, Majority Leader at the time, pushed the matter aside when asked about the bonuses by the media, calling it an “internal caucus matter.” But House Speaker and now-Philadelphia City Councilman Dennis O’Brien ordered the release of all House salaries. The Senate soon followed suit. What they found was shocking: House Democrats had handed out $2.3 million in bonuses; Republicans shelled $919,000; Senate Democrats gave $41,000 and Senate Republicans: $366,000.
Then-Attorney General Tom Corbett launched an investigation into the matter. It was found that employees of the Legislature had worked on state time and used taxpayer-funded resources for “political activities.” Twenty-five politicians and employees were charged, including Veon, DeWeese and former Philly state Rep. John Perzel. (Veon is in prison; DeWeese and Perzel await sentencing.)
What the fuck were they doing to earn all that extra cash? They were working to get third-party candidates kicked off the ballot. In one of those cases, the third-party candidate was Ralph Nader—consumer advocate and alleged 2000 presidential election spoiler—when he ran for office again in 2004. Democrats had allegedly contracted Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith to challenge Nader’s petitions, which, due to the illegal taxpayer-paid work, the Commonwealth Court later found to be “rife with forgeries.”
According to an open letter Nader sent to Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, released last June, the court found 8,976 signatures were struck because the voters were not registered on the day they signed the petition; 7,851 were ruled invalid because of incomplete data; 6,411 were struck because the elector had moved residence between the signing of the petition and when the petition was challenged; 3,513 were found to be “other”; and the reasons go on.
Oddly, Reed Smith was never brought up on charges for the case, claiming they’d worked on the Nader petition on a “volunteer basis” and that the lawyers with the firm weren’t aware the Democratic staffers with whom they were working were doing so on state time. (Oh, and in 2008, Reed Smith donated $15,900 to AG Corbett’s re-election campaign, which was then elbow-deep in the investigation.)
In spite of the Bonusgate revelations, Nader was still handed the $81,102.19 bill.
But he refused to pay, believing he’d been the victim of a state-funded crime.
Then, Reed Smith raised the stakes.
“Reed Smith took their $81,000 judgment from the Pennsylvania courts and they brought it to D.C., where Nader lives,” says Oliver Hall of the Center for Competitive Democracy in D.C., a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the barriers of political participation. “And that’s where they found his bank accounts. And in July 2007, they froze the money in them, saying they should be able to take that money in satisfaction of this $81,000 judgment in Pennsylvania.”
Hall has been representing Nader in the ongoing case since 2005. And Reed Smith is still attempting to pry the money awarded to them from Nader’s D.C. bank accounts.
Neither Nader nor Reed Smith responded to requests for comment.
On April 21, 2010, the D.C. Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether Nader’s money should be released. Almost two years later, there’s still no decision in that case.
Today, Nader still fights Pennsylvania’s loser-pays campaign model—which apparently was modeled after him: According to Ballot Access News—a nonpartisan newsletter that exclusively details ballot issues—he’s the first candidate in Pennsylvania history to be liable for his opponents’ costs. Hall claims the entire practice is unconstitutional. And because of his and others’ efforts, Pennsylvania, the state where American democracy began, has finally prompted a response.
Though Oliver Hall lives in Washington, D.C., he spends a lot of time thinking about Pennsylvania. Because after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to set aside the judgments of Ralph Nader and others, Hall filed his own lawsuit with the Center for Competitive Democracy. It was on behalf of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Green and Libertarian parties in the eastern district of the state, and it challenges the constitutionality of the loser-pays electoral statute. His challenge says the U.S. Supreme Court maintains states cannot shoulder the financial burden of holding elections on either the citizens or the candidates running for office.
In Nader’s letter to Castille, he expressed a similar outlook. “The Jim Crow era ended in large part because the United States Supreme Court struck down such financial burdens in a series of landmark civil rights cases protecting candidate and voter rights,” he wrote. “As the Supreme Court of the United States observed more than 40 years ago, in striking down Virginia’s poll tax, ‘It has long been established that a state may not impose a penalty upon those who exercise a right guaranteed by the Constitution.’”
So, everyone else seems to get it.
Philadelphia activist Cheri Honkala has been fighting for poor people’s economic rights for the last 25 years, most notably for her efforts to keep families in their homes. But it wasn’t until recently— 2011, actually—that she got involved in party politics.
PW's Summer Guide 2015