John Baer: A house and a job is lost in the name of Legislature reform

YOU COULD SAY that Terry Shaffer started the fire.

The 49-year-old former state House aide, now living in a Pittsburgh suburb after losing his job and his house, was the first witness to testify before a state grand jury investigating wrongdoing in the Legislature.

He went to them.

This was April 2007, after Shaffer contacted a prosecutor with information he felt needed to be public.

He testified for two-and-a-half hours, then answered questions grand jurors submitted to prosecutors.

"I gave them documents to support what I had to say and told them more of what I believed to be true," including information about how tax dollars in huge, unaudited legislative accounts get used, Shaffer told me during a lengthy interview.

His testimony set off sparks that led to a firestorm now threatening to engulf more political careers than maybe anything else in state history.

Shaffer gave up his boss, former Beaver County Rep. Frank LaGrotta, D-Ellwood City, for hiring "ghost" employees.

LaGrotta, to avoid prison, gave prosecutors a whole lot more.

And now we're off to the races.

The first round of indictments July 10 charged a dozen House Democrats in a pervasive scheme using millions of tax dollars to run political campaigns. It included using public offices and equipment and secret bonuses paid to aides for campaign work on state time.

While only Democrats are charged so far, Republicans also are under investigation and further indictments are expected.

A spokesman for Attorney General Tom Corbett, asked about Shaffer, would not confirm who testified or what was said since grand juries are secret, but noted witnesses aren't bound by secrecy rules.

Shaffer contacted me after reading a column in which I questioned who or what can save the Legislature from its ever-worsening public slide.

After an exchange of e-mails, he agreed to an interview.

"I'm basically just trying to do what I can for things that I think are important," he said.

Unemployed, he does volunteer research for Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, a nonprofit reform group. He gets an occasional stipend from the group and collects a $647-a-month state pension for 15 years' service, all of it with LaGrotta.

"I have a great deal of admiration for Terry," said Democracy Rising chief Tim Potts. "A lot of things that are being investigated now would not have been investigated without him."

LaGrotta is under house arrest with an ankle bracelet after pleading guilty in February to hiring family members for no-show jobs on his legislative staff.

He faced prison but cooperated with prosecutors, reportedly providing information on several aspects of the probe, including bonuses.

Shaffer and LaGrotta grew up together (they were partners on Ellwood City's Riverside High School debate team) and Shaffer ran LaGrotta's district office at annual salary of $60,000.

"I agonized for months," Shaffer said. "I had been aware for some time Frank was employing his niece and his sister in some capacity."

The two women split $27,000 in 2005 and 2006 for little or no work.

"When I decided to come forward, I understood the consequences but I told my [college-aged] son, 'sometimes what is right disagrees with what is best for you,' " Shaffer said.

LaGrotta lost his re-election bid in 2006, due mostly to the infamous 2005 pay grab, after 18 years in the Legislature.

Shaffer left LaGrotta's office near the end of 2006 and by deciding to testify essentially killed any chance of getting another political job.

He's since gotten foreclosure papers on his Beaver County house because he couldn't keep up mortgage payments.

He admits it was easier to talk once outside the system and says a reason more people don't come forward is that insiders "keep this stuff quiet by paying good salaries and benefits" to those who know that speaking out invites joblessness.

(Ironically, the day he was called to testify he got e-mail from LaGrotta's office saying a job interview was arranged for him in U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's Pittsburgh office. He contacted Casey's office, told them LaGrotta was under investigation, and never heard back.)

But Shaffer has "absolutely no regrets" about coming forward and sees the unfolding investigation as "a unique opportunity" for reform.

"If people don't step up now and work for change, they don't deserve good government," Shaffer said. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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