‘Untold Millions’ Stolen from Pennsylvania Turnpike, Attorney General Says

‘Untold Millions’ Stolen from Pennsylvania Turnpike, Attorney General Says
March 14, 2013

Eric Boehm

Eric Boehm writes for the Pennsylvania Independent, where this column first appeared. (read full bio)

Three former top officials at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and a former state senator ran a political scheme that resulted in “untold millions” of taxpayer dollars being misused and stolen, Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) said.

Kane said the officials were engaged in a “pay-to-play” arrangement with engineering firms, insurance companies and banks that had contracts with the turnpike between 2000 and 2011.

In total, eight men have been charged with various counts of conspiracy, bribery, bid rigging, theft and several other charges. Kane said the officials used their power to secure “secret gifts of cash, travel and entertainment, along with political contributions” from contractors doing business with the Turnpike Commission.

‘Wielded Power for Self-Enrichment’

“The former state officials charged wielded extraordinary power which they wrongfully used for self-enrichment for their own political purposes,” Kane said. “Those who ‘pay-to-play’ have sought and been rewarded with multimillion-dollar turnpike contracts, and the public has lost untold millions of dollars.”

Former state Sen. Robert Mellow (D-Lackawanna) was the only elected official charged.

According to the grand jury presentment, he was “actively involved in steering Turnpike contracts to particular vendors,” securing political contributions from turnpike officials and vendors, and personally benefitted from gifts, including tickets to New York Yankees baseball games and trips paid for by Turnpike contractors, which he did not disclose on state ethics forms.

Charges were also filed against Mitchell Rubin, former chairman of the Turnpike Commission; Joseph Brimmeier, former CEO of the Turnpike Commission; and George Hatalowich, a former COO and contract administrator for the Turnpike Commission.

Contracts Funneled to Certain Vendors

All were involved in funneling contracts to certain vendors and securing political contributions from those vendors.

Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan called it “a complex scheme.”

He said the investigation was aided by former employees of the turnpike who tried to “do the right thing” and were reassigned or terminated by the commission for speaking out about the criminal activities.

“This has happened all too often in Pennsylvania,” Noonan said. “Pennsylvanians deserve better from our government.”

The investigation began under the watch of Gov. Tom Corbett (R) while he was attorney general and continued under Linda Kelly, who Corbett appointed to the office when he resigned in January 2011.

Kane said she proceeded with all charges recommended by the grand jury.

The four other men charged were: Dennis Miller, a turnpike vendor; Jeffery Suzenski, a consultant; and former turnpike employees Melvin Shelton and Raymond Zajicek.

Eight Charged So Far

Charges have been filed against all eight men. Six of them – all except Brimmeier and Mellow – were arraigned Wednesday.

Brimmeier will be arraigned on Thursday, and Mellow’s arraignment will take place in the coming weeks, as the timing has to be worked out with federal authorities because Mellow is already behind bars. Mellow was sentenced in January to 16 months in prison for using public funds for political campaigns.

Kane said other public officials may have received political contributions as part of the scheme, but charges were brought against only those who had control over the contributions.

Noonan said the activity at the turnpike was widely rumored and discussed in political circles, but charges were brought only in situations where direct evidence was found by the grand jury.

Kane and Noonan declined to comment on whether more charges were expected, though they both labeled the investigation as ongoing. Both also declined to comment on whether any state officials were given immunity in return for their testimony.

The grand jury investigation lasted 44 months.

According to the presentment, Mellow and another unnamed senator – known as “Senator #6” and identified as a Philadelphian who served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee during much of Mellow’s tenure as Democratic leader of the state Senate – “exerted tremendous influence over the Turnpike,” and used their positions to appoint Rubin and other high-ranking officials, who then carried out the senators’ instructions.

The state Senate must confirm appointees to the Turnpike Commission.

Noonan and Kane declined to identify “Senator #6.”

Gubernatorial Candidates Implicated

Also implicated but not named in the grand jury presentment are four former gubernatorial candidates who received contributions from firms connected with the turnpike.

The grand jury concluded the “political relationships and exercise of authority” from the top officials and state senators “superseded any efforts on the parts of Turnpike staff to legitimize their processes.”

Attempts on Wednesday to contact the men who were charged were unsuccessful and their lawyers gave no comment to reporters at the arraignment.

Eric Boehm (Eric@PAIndependent.com) writes for the Pennsylvania Independent. Used with permission of PAIndependent.com.

Eric Boehm

Eric Boehm writes for the Pennsylvania Independent, where this column first appeared. (read full bio)