Witness who deleted House files: 'I was scared'

Among the seven defendants who've pleaded guilty today in Bonusgatel: clockwise from top left, Mike Manzo; former chief of staff to Rep. H. William DeWeese; his wife, Rachel Manzo, a one-time aide to several legislators; Scott Brubaker, the House Democratic Caucus' former director of staffing and administration; and his wife, Jennifer Brubaker, former director of the Democrats' Legislative Research Office. (www.attorneygeneral.gov)

HARRISBURG - Mike Manzo felt the heat.

Subpoenas were flying around the Capitol, and it was only a matter of time before agents from the state Attorney General's Office would come knocking at his door.

It was the fall of 2007, and he was about to be fired as a senior House aide. He panicked - and started deleting files from his legislative computer, Manzo testified yesterday in the theft trial of former Rep. Mike Veon.

"You were trying to hide the evidence of the criminal acts?" asked Dan Raynak, one of Veon's defense lawyers.

"I was trying to hide things that were potentially problematic to me," replied Manzo, who was chief of staff to then-House Democratic Leader Bill DeWeese. "I was a little rattled at the time. I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen next."

The dramatic testimony came as Raynak attempted to dent the credibility of the prosecution's leadoff witness in the cash-for-campaigning trial of Veon and three former aides caught up in the so-called Bonusgate scandal.

At times, questions got deeply personal for Manzo yesterday, his fourth day on the witness stand.

Under cross-examination by Raynak, Manzo, 40, admitted he had carried on an extramarital affair with a former beauty queen, and put her in a state job in 2005.

Manzo told the jury that he set up Angela Bertugli, then 22 and a graduate student from southwestern Pennsylvania, in a state-rented field office above a cigar shop in Pittsburgh. She did no actual government work.

"I had an affair," he said. "She was doing campaign work."

Manzo, however, bristled at a suggestion by Raynak that Bertugli's job wasn't the first time Manzo had used his official clout to help a girlfriend.

Raynak asked: Hadn't Manzo once promoted Rachel Hursh - whom he later married - as top aide to the House Tourism Committee because he and Hursh were romantically involved?

"That is absolutely untrue," snapped Manzo, in one of the few times he showed emotion on the stand. "She was a very hard worker and a very good worker."

Like her husband, Rachel Manzo, 29, has pleaded guilty to a theft charge in the case and is expected to be called as a prosecution witness.

In 2006, Bertugli got a $7,000 state bonus; Rachel Manzo received double that amount.

Responding to a question by Raynak, Manzo said he could not remember if he had a relationship with any other staffer who had received one of the controversial bonuses.

Prosecutors allege that Veon, the former House Democratic whip, and Manzo masterminded a scheme to pay $1.4 million in state-funded bonuses to legislative staff as rewards for political-campaign work. Veon's codefendants, former House aides Brett Cott, Steve Keefer, and Annamarie Perretta-Rosepink, are accused of helping carry out the scheme.

Manzo was originally charged with more than three dozen counts of theft, conflict of interest, and conspiracy. He pleaded guilty to 10 counts in a deal that calls for him to testify for prosecutors against Veon and DeWeese (D., Greene), who is awaiting trial on separate charges.

Throughout yesterday's cross-examination, Raynak tried to assign blame for the bonus scheme on Manzo and his former boss, DeWeese.

Twice, Raynak referred to DeWeese and an "unindicted co-conspirator."

DeWeese was charged in December with theft and conspiracy. He allegedly directed his legislative staff to work on his campaigns on state time, among other things. He was not charged in connection with the alleged bonus scheme, and has repeatedly said he did not know it existed until after the scandal broke in early 2007.

DeWeese, who has served in the House for three decades, announced on Thursday that he would seek reelection this year and expected to be vindicated in court.

Manzo testified that DeWeese personally intervened to get bonuses for two of his aides, including Sharon Rodavich, who is also facing criminal charges in the Bonusgate investigation.

Beyond that, Manzo testified, he was not sure to what extent DeWeese - one of the most powerful Democrats in the legislature over the last two decades - knew of the bonus scheme. "He knew there was compensation being done for campaigns," he added.

Manzo said that volunteers who signed up to help Veon's campaign "really believed in what [Veon] was doing" - and said DeWeese was always jealous of such loyalty.

He recalled how his former boss once griped that staffers unwilling to work on his campaigns should be fired.

At one point in his testimony, Manzo, who served for years as DeWeese's chief of staff, offered an insider's critique of the staffing levels in the state House, among the highest of any legislative body in the nation.

During certain times of the year, House employees worked very hard, Manzo said. But when the legislature was not in session, there was a lot of down time for the staffers, many of whom were hired to work on campaigns, he told the jurors.

For years, Raynak said, the legislature has been "overstocked and overstaffed."

"That would be my opinion," Manzo said. "It's very hard to find 40 hours of week for everyone in the building."

Manzo now works as a government and media consultant in Harrisburg. His wife tends bar at a restaurant two blocks from the Capitol.

He is expected back on the stand Monday when the trial enters its second week.

Originally, Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis told the jury he expected the trial to last between three and four weeks.

But given the slow pace thus far, "it looks like to me the judge's estimation is way off," said one of the prosecutors, Mark Costanzo, a senior deputy attorney general.

"It could take ages," Costanzo said. He noted that the prosecution plans to call as many as 20 to 30 additional witnesses before it rests.

In a case built heavily on recovered House e-mails, Manzo did not describe the contents of the computer files he deleted in 2007. After court, Raynak told reporters he planned to pursue similar questions with other prosecution witnesses.


Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

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