Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
A grand jury investigation into corrupt contracting practices at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has led to charges filed against eight people, including a former state senator and the Turnpike’s ex-CEO.
The probe, beginning in 2009, resulted in a presentment alleging tit-for-tat arrangements were rampant at the Pennsylvania Turnpike, costing the state millions of dollars.
Five former officials and employees of the toll road are facing charges, including former CEO Joe Brimmeier, as well as two businessmen who had contracts with the Turnpike. Alleged crimes include conspiracy, theft, commercial bribery, and bid-rigging.
State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said Wednesday the grand jury’s report shows the big contracts with the Turnpike hinged on political support from vendors.
“The reason they made these contributions and provided these gifts was because that’s the way they knew they would get these contracts,” said Noonan.
The grand jury found that several state legislators accepted gifts and campaign contributions from groups seeking business with the Turnpike, but only one public official was charged: former Democratic state Sen. Bob Mellow.
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Mellow was the only legislator proven to be directing what she called a “pay to play” scheme. Otherwise, she said, evidence shows the corruption was based at the Turnpike Commission itself.
“It was the Turnpike creating their own fiefdom and it was the Turnpike forcing the vendors… to give to the political campaigns that those Turnpike officials told them to give to,” said Kane.
The state attorney general’s office said Mellow will be arraigned next week, when he is transported from the federal prison in South Carolina where he’s serving a sentence for pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
The rest of the defendants are being brought before a judge this week to file their pleas to the charges.
Kane said the grand jury probe, which was prompted by public complaints, found that the Turnpike has been awash with “improper influence” for years.
“Evidence of secret gifts of cash, travel, and entertainment and the payment of substantial political contributions to public officials and political organizations by private Turnpike vendors and their consultants demonstrates that the Turnpike operates under a pay to play system that is illegal and corrupt,” said Kane. She said it’s due to the statute of limitations on these kinds of cases that charges were only filed on alleged crimes dating back to 2001.
Mark Compton, CEO of the Turnpike Commission since last month, said the commission is “troubled” by the news.
“If today’s charges are indeed proven to be true, those actions cannot and will not be defended, but I must tell you, this is not a reflection on our current employees,” said Compton. “Since my arrival, what I can tell you is the culture at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is not what’s portrayed in media reports.”
“The commission has made great strides in the past two years to ensure accountability in all of our operations,” said Compton, noting the agency has hired a chief compliance officer, changed its procurement policy, and grown the pool of contractors.
Here’s the complete list, from the attorney general’s office press release, of the people charged:
--Robert Mellow, 70, 110 Oak Hill Drive, Archbald, PA, is charged with two counts corrupt organizations, two counts of restricted activities, one count of commercial bribery, one count of unlawful bid-rigging, one count of restricted activities, one count of criminal conspiracy, and one count of failure to file expense account.
--Mitchell Rubin, 61, 1608 Green St., Philadelphia, PA, is charged with three counts of unlawful bid rigging, two counts corrupt organizations, two counts of restricted activities, one count commercial bribery, and one count of criminal conspiracy.
--Joseph Brimmeier, 64, 141 Renfer St., Pittsburgh, PA, is charged with two counts corrupt organizations, two counts of unlawful bid-rigging, two counts of restricted activities, one count of commercial bribery, one count of criminal attempt, and one count of criminal conspiracy
--George Hatalowich, 47, 224 Tiverton Lane, Harrisburg, PA, is charged with seven counts of restricted activities, three counts of unlawful bid-rigging, two counts of corrupt organizations, one count of commercial bribery, one count of criminal attempt, and one count of criminal conspiracy.
--Dennis Miller, 51, 1626 Whitley Drive, Harrisburg, PA, is charged with one count of unlawful bid-rigging, one count of theft by unlawful taking, one count of theft by deception, one count of restricted activities, and one count of criminal conspiracy.
--Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, 2193 Saint Peters Road, Pottstown, PA, is charged with one count of restricted activities.
--Melvin Shelton, 81, 6000 West Oxford St., Philadelphia, PA, is charged with two counts of theft by unlawful taking, two counts of theft by deception, two counts of misapplication of entrusted property and property of government or financial institutions, one count of unauthorized use of automobiles and other vehicles, one count of perjury, one count of false swearing,
--Raymond Zajicek, 67, 731 Hidden Lake Drive, Tarpon Springs, FL, is charged with two counts theft by unlawful taking, two counts theft by deception, two counts of misapplication of entrusted property and property of government or financial institutions, one count of unauthorized use of automobiles and other vehicles, and one count of simple assault.
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