Wagner denies bribing state Senate candidate

Greg Gross

State Sen. Scott Wagner denied claims that he or anyone in his Capitol office in Harrisburg offered a bribe to Scott Harper if he dropped out of a state Senate race.

State Sen. Scott Wagner

"The lie has been told that I am a backroom deal guy and that I participated in a backroom deal," the Spring Garden Township Republican said in a meeting with the media at his attorney's office near Hershey on Wednesday. "I'm going to be very diplomatic today. This is not true and I am very hot under the collar right now about his whole thing."

Harper, a Washington Township attorney, contends he was offered a York County judgeship during a meeting in the state Capitol he thought was to make some inroads in Harrisburg. During the meeting, Harper said he was also encouraged to drop out of the race for the 31st Senate District because he'd "dilute the York vote," taking York County votes away from fellow candidate state Rep. Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg.

"Since he has made two threats to me in two days I'm not commenting about anything else. He has my family afraid of (sic) my safety," Harper said wrote in an email in reply requesting comment.

Wagner responded, saying neither he nor anyone he knows ever threatened Harper.

"This is getting more bizarre by the minute," Wagner said.

Also running for the Senate seat, which is being vacated by the retiring Republican Sen. Pat Vance, are Camp Hill-area dentist Brice Arndt and ex-NFLer Jon Ritchie. All four candidates are Republicans. The district includes a portion of York County and a large swath of Cumberland County.

The meeting: Harper said the judgeship offer was made when he met with Jason High, Wagner's chief of staff, and Matt Plumber, who is campaign consultant for Arndt, in the cafeteria of the Capitol last month.

"It totally caught me off guard. It's not what I was expecting. I don't know what those two were up to that day," Harper said in an interview. And he added in a subsequent email to the York Dispatch: "I dismissed the idea before they could elaborate. I didn’t ask about either an appointment or money to run, but I assumed they were talking about some type of an appointment."

During the meeting, Harper said couldn't remember if High or Plummer offered him the judgeship if he left the race. Plummer had previously gone to Harper's West York law office and offered to set up a meeting with Wagner.

“I'm not sure if it came out of Jason's mouth. It was the first thing Matt said when he came in my office," Harper said. “If I were to speculate, I'd say he (Wagner) was behind the whole thing.”

Before the offer was made, Harper said, he was asked what it would take for him to bow out of the race, to which Harper said he replied perhaps Wagner, who owns the trash-collection business Penn Waste, could give him some legal work.

Scott Harper is running for state Senate in the 31st District.

Allegation denied: To back up his claim that a judgeship wasn't offered, Wagner gave the press a printed copy of an email exchange between Harper and Plummer.

Part of an email Harper wrote after the meeting says: "I'm not sure what we really accomplished for me. Wagner made no offers or commitments in exchange for me withdrawing." And later in the email: "If they want to revisit the issue I would be more than welcome to hear what they have to say."

In a prepared statement, Plummer denied that the judgeship offer was made but said he did, while working independently of the Arndt campaign, set up the meeting.

The meeting in the cafeteria lasted about 10 minutes, and the trio ran into Wagner outside of Senate chambers and they spoke briefly.

The conversation between Wagner and Harper included small talk about Harper's job, and Wagner wished him luck in the race. The conversation lasted 45 seconds to a minute, Wagner said.

"At no time in any of these meetings was anything offered or promised for Harper to be off of the ballot," Plummer wrote in the statement.

Concerns: High previously confirmed to the York Dispatch that he met briefly with Harper but said he didn't encourage him to drop out of the race.

"It wasn't like 'You gotta get out,'" High said of his conversation with Harper. But it was more along the lines of: "That it would be easier if he weren't in the race because he would dilute the York vote."

The fact a meeting between a candidate and a paid government official took place in the Capitol during working hours has raised concern in York's political arena.

The law strictly forbids government officials from engaging in political campaigning while on the clock and doing any such work in the Capitol.

Wagner said he doesn't believe anything illegal took place.

"My chief of staff has every right to walk down to the cafeteria and meet somebody," Wagner said, adding other candidates for office have dropped by his office in the past. "We don't do any campaign fundraising activities, strategy-type stuff in the Capitol. We go offsite to do that."

The Attorney General's Office does not confirm or deny is has launched investigations, Jeff Johnson, a spokesman for the office, wrote in an email.

Appointments: In Pennsylvania, a state senator can recommend to the governor a candidate to fill a vacancy on a county Court of Common Pleas bench. York County's bench has two vacancies that could be filled by appointment.

However, Wagner has not been in favor of filling judicial vacancies by appointment, saying recommending a nominee to the governor's office is akin to an endorsement process.

Wagner said he believes someone behind the scenes is driving Harper's bribery story.

"There a lot of people that are gaming for me right now because I'm disrupting things in Harrisburg. I don't do backstabbing. I'll stab you in the front. You'll see the knife coming," Wagner said. "I may not be the smoothest guy in town and I may not be the most polished, but I'm going to tell you something: I'm honest and I have integrity and I have a reputation."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.