Kane: Turnpike whistle-blowers were threatened, fired

Posted: March 14, 2013

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission insiders who tried to blow the whistle on patronage hires, pay-to-play contracts, and influence-peddling were routinely threatened and sometimes fired by bosses with political connections, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Wednesday.

One of those whistle-blowers was Ralph M. Bailets, a financial officer, who said he was dismissed for complaining about $82 million in technology contracts awarded to a politically connected firm that he said charged too much and performed poorly.

Another was Robert M. Wallett, a former Air Force officer who said he lost his turnpike job in maintenance and facilities because he evaluated contract bidders by the book - on their competence instead of their politics.

Both men have sued the Turnpike Commission, contending that they were illegally dismissed in retaliation for objections to business as usual at the agency.

Both men reportedly also testified to the state grand jury whose investigation, nearly four years and counting, resulted Wednesday in criminal charges against eight current and former turnpike officials, employees, and contractors.

In their lawsuits, Bailets and Wallett described an agency ruled by political favoritism, with contracts and jobs going to campaign donors and friends of politicians and turnpike officials.

Wallett's suit is pending in a federal appeals court after being dismissed by U.S. District Judge Sylvia Rambo in Harrisburg. Bailets' case awaits arguments in state court.

Bailets' complaints about $82 million in toll-payer funds going to Ciber Inc., a Colorado-based technology firm, figured prominently in the grand jury report issued Wednesday. Ciber was hired to create and install a computerized financial reporting system for the turnpike.

One of the men charged Wednesday was Dennis Miller, 51, of Harrisburg. He is a Ciber vice president and the company's representative on turnpike projects.

Miller was also, according to the grand jury, a significant political donor to then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), the now-jailed power broker who for years pulled many of the strings at the Turnpike Commission.

Miller is charged with bid-rigging, theft, and conspiracy, among other charges. His lawyer, Mark Sheppard, said, "We look forward to defending the charges in court. This is only one side of the story."

Bailets, who was manager of financial reporting and systems and served as assistant secretary-treasurer for the Turnpike Commission, said he was told by his supervisor to "not make any waves or your job will be in jeopardy."

Bailets said he was dismissed in 2008 after repeatedly raising objections to Ciber's performance and costs. According to the grand jury, Ciber initially received a contract for $3.5 million, then got a no-bid second contract for $58.3 million. The grand jury called the latter "dramatic and unprecedented."

Ciber, the grand jury said, directed its subcontractors to overbill the turnpike and perform fabricated and redundant tasks to justify its charges.

Bailets' warnings about Ciber went unheeded, he said. "It was obvious that Ciber was being protected and not required to do the work called for . . . but rather would be rewarded for failing to do that work by being given additional contracts," Bailets said in his lawsuit.

Wallett was director of turnpike maintenance and then of facilities before he was dismissed and escorted from his office on May 15, 2009. He said he was told a reorganization prompted his removal.

But Wallett, who had joined the agency after retiring as a lieutenant colonel involved in military-base administration, said he was fired because he "would not go along" with "political hirings" and "unlawful contracting practices."

His suit claimed former turnpike chief executive Joseph Brimmeier and former chief operating officer George Hatalowich - both of whom were criminally charged Wednesday - would "shepherd lucrative public contracts to contractors who were connected politically and were large political contributors to certain political action committees and candidates."

"Not being aware of this 'arrangement,' Wallett would inevitably fail to recommend firms that they wanted to pick because they were not always within the top firms based on a merit ranking and were sometimes the lowest-ranked firms, bordering on incompetence," the suit said.

Wallett contended that his annual performance reviews by Hatalowich were lowered because of his insistence on evaluating contract bidders on competence and price.

Wallett also complained about the hiring of an architect who acknowledged she had "worked politically with Brimmeier on the [Ed Rendell] gubernatorial campaign and was a personal friend of Brimmeier's."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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