Grand jury report details pay-to-play culture at Turnpike Commission

Pa. Attorney General Kathleen Kane and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan announce the charges.
Pa. Attorney General Kathleen Kane and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan announce the charges. (AP)
Posted: March 15, 2013

HARRISBURG - The scheme was simple and crude.

It would start with a phone call to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission from a high-ranking state senator in the Capitol who needed to raise campaign cash fast. It would end with turnpike brass' pulling out a list of the agency's contractors, lawyers, and consultants, and calling them with this implicit message: Pay now, play later.

Such was the unabashed pay-to-play culture that existed for the last decade at the Turnpike Commission, as described in detail in a sweeping, 85-page grand jury presentment announced Wednesday by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. The grand jury charged eight people, including former Senate Democratic leader Robert J. Mellow, former Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, and onetime turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, with crimes ranging from bribery to bid-rigging, and depicted a blatant if unsophisticated scheme in which everyone but taxpayers and toll-payers benefited.

Mellow and others, the grand jury found, essentially used the agency as a personal cash machine, dangling the promise of lucrative turnpike contracts to raise campaign money or be lavished with meals, trips, or good seats at ballgames. The report said contractors, some more reluctant than others, played along.

"Evidence of secret gifts, 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," Kane, flanked by State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, said at a news conference Wednesday at the Capitol to announce the charges.

One unidentified person who testified to the grand jury described the agency's culture this way: "The turnpike is the Mesopotamia river. All of the animals come and drink here."

Along with Mellow, Rubin, and Brimmeier, charged Wednesday were former turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg, and vendors Dennis Miller, 51, of Harrisburg, and Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, of Pottstown. Charged separately with theft-related crimes were former turnpike employees Melvin Shelton, 81, of Philadelphia, and Raymond Zajicek, 67, of Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Shelton is a longtime political ally of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.), who is a former turnpike commissioner. The charges said Shelton used Brady as a reference when he was hired at the turnpike and often dropped Brady's name.

Interviewed in Washington Wednesday, Brady said of the turnpike, "When I was a commissioner there, I never did nothing nowhere near that. I don't even know who these people are." He declined to comment on the charges against Shelton.

Rubin, Miller, Hatalowich, and Suzenski were arraigned Wednesday in a Harrisburg district court and released on $100,000 bail.

Rubin's attorney, David Shapiro, brushed aside reporters' questions on his way from the courtroom with a curt "no comment." Miller's lawyer, Mark Sheppard, said, "We look forward to defending the charges in court. This is only one side of the story."

Attorneys for the other defendants could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The investigation into wrongdoing at the turnpike began in 2009 under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is now governor. Though it is not known what sparked the probe, this much quickly became clear to investigators: A handful of top officials at the agency seemed as concerned about seeking campaign money from contractors as they were about operating and maintaining the 514 miles of turnpike roadway.

The grand jury said Brimmeier was a campaign confidante to Ed Rendell - identified in the report only as a "gubernatorial candidate" - during the Democrat's successful 2002 run for governor. The following year, after Rendell named him CEO at the turnpike, Brimmeier made it his first order of business to visit Mellow, then the top Democrat in the state Senate, and Mellow's chief of staff, Anthony Lepore, the report said.

Lepore testified under a grant of immunity from prosecution and is not being charged.

During that 2003 meeting, Brimmeier allegedly told Mellow and Lepore: "You come to me, I'm your guy."

And that they did.

The way it worked, according to the grand jury: Senators would decide which firm or person they wanted for a contract, and would then call turnpike officials with orders to follow through.

Usually, the report said, the contracts went to people who had donated to campaigns, including those of Rendell, then-State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, and then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Jubelirer, a Republican from Blair County - none of whose names appear in the report, Kane said, because they are not charged with any offenses.

In deciding who got what work, the report said, a "60/40 rule" was used: 60 percent to firms connected with the party in power, usually in the governor's office. In practice, the grand jury found, state Senate leaders decided who got what.

Among the senators with sway at the turnpike was a person identified as "Senator #6," described as the former ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. At the time, that was Fumo, now jailed in a separate federal corruption case.

"Senator #6," according to the presentment, handpicked Rubin to serve on the Turnpike Commission.

"Senator #6 exerted great influence over Rubin," the presentment said, "and, as a direct result, Rubin influenced contracting decisions made by executive staff at the turnpike and regularly advocated that campaign contributions be made by turnpike vendors to Senator #6" and others.

Asked Wednesday whether they had considered charging Fumo anew, Kane and Noonan said there was not enough evidence to do so.

Mellow, of Lackawanna County, is in prison on unrelated federal charges.

The grand jury also found that Brimmeier and others at the turnpike received gifts from vendors such as dinner cruises, sports tickets, and even overseas travel to Vienna and Budapest for Hatalowich, who helped oversee the awarding of contracts.

Mellow was frequently shuttled by limousine to New York Yankees games, courtesy of a vendor, according to the presentment. His seat: fifth row, behind the dugout.

One contractor, Miller, was described as openly wining and dining turnpike officials. In 2005, the report said, his firm won a $3.5 million contract for computer services. A year later, the commissioners increased it to $58 million - a move grand jurors called "unprecedented."

In the end, grand jurors found, "the public has lost untold millions of dollars and continues to do so to the current day."


Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Craig R. McCoy, Jonathan Tamari, and Paul Nussbaum.

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