By Alex Roarty
HARRISBURG — The two men in arguably the state’s most high-profile congressional election didn’t get into a face-to-face argument Wednesday, but they certainly came close.
Democrat Bryan Lentz and Republican Pat Meehan, both battling in the highly competitive 7th Congressional District race, traded criticisms and accusations during a heated mid-day press event in the Capitol most noteworthy for an unusual back-to-back press conference held by the candidates, each at the same location and literally just seconds apart.
The confrontational format clearly wasn’t part of the plan for Meehan, who was trying to link Lentz to the state government scandal known as “Bonusgate” by pointing out the Democrat had received help during a 2006 campaign from someone who later received an illegal taxpayer-funded bonus. Ann Collis, who had worked in the House Democratic Caucus and continues to work under Lentz and other lawmakers, received the illegal payment after working for the Democrat in 2006 during his first state House campaign.
“We’ve now reached the point where speculation is unnecessary,” said Meehan, standing inside a Capitol the former U.S. attorney called a “crime scene.”
He continued: “There are no mysteries. The facts have been laid bare,the evidence and grand jury testimony made public during the Bonusgate trial lead directly to the front door of the Lentz campaign offices.”
Although Meehan’s charge would normally leave reporters scrambling to gather Lentz’s reaction, the state lawmaker, in town for legislative session, expedited his response. After standing in the crowd watching the Republican’s press conference, he quickly walked up to the same podium Meehan had stood at just seconds earlier and began blasting him for what he said amounted to nothing but a desperate and baseless charge. The Democrat did make sure to detach a “Meehan for Congress” sign attached to the podium to let it flop to the ground as it was now the Republican watching from the audience.
“If you drove up to Congress for this press conference, I apologize,” he said, referencing the several southeast Pennsylvania who made the roughly 90-minute trek to the state Capitol. “You should ask for gas money to go back to Philadelphia for this nonsense.”
Collis, he said, volunteered for his campaign for a month in 2006, one of an array of staffers who worked for him in that race. Lentz said he hadn’t kept track of how she was paid and was certainly unaware she was going to receive an illegal bonus from state money.
The investigation, which has led to recent convictions of several House Democrats, including former Minority Whip Mike Veon, charged the former House leader and a coalition of other top Democrats of conspiring to use a fleet of caucus employees to work on campaigns statewide. Millions of dollars were paid as bonuses to the employees, allocated based on how well they performed the political work.
The rapid response was an effective tactic for the Democrat. Meehan spent most of the 15-minute press conference telling reporters that Lentz needed to answer if he knew about the arrangement with Collis, when he knew, and if he ever was investigated or interviewed by agents with the attorney general.
Lentz said he was never aware Collis would receive the payment, found out about it only through media reports, and has never been interviewed by anyone in the attorney general’s office.
“This press conference was a whole lot of nonsense,” he said.
In fact, he said, of the two candidates, Meehan is the only one under investigation. The former prosecutor has turned over to authorities campaign nominating petitions that appeared to contain irregularities, an investigation that is under way in the attorney general’s office.
The Lentz campaign has said the petition problems, which involve the names of some Delaware County Republican leaders, speak to a deeper corruption within the local GOP machine in the 7th District.
Meehan Campaign Manager Bryan Kendro said after the press conference, which featured intermittent arguments between staffers of the two campaigns, that even if Lentz didn’t know about the bonus he should still be responsible for everything that happens on his campaign.