Inquirer Editorial: Pennsylvania's Mesopotamia

Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced the results of a lengthy investigation.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced the results of a lengthy investigation. (BRADLEY C BOWER / AP)
Posted: March 15, 2013

In describing the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission as just the kind of contracts-for-contributions flea market it's widely suspected of being, one grand jury witness colorfully compared it to "the Mesopotamia river," adding, "All of the animals come and drink there. If you were an engineering firm or a law firm or a consulting firm or whatever, you go to the turnpike, because that is where the money is."

Mesopotamia is of course not a river, but the ancient land between two rivers (neither one being the Schuylkill). But turnpike types didn't seem to sweat certain details anyway - details like whether their contracts should be awarded by state legislators. A similarly limited attention span has been professed by some of the politicians who, according to the state grand jury presentment released this week, ultimately benefited.

"I have not read the indictment nor was I aware of any inappropriate activity," former Gov. Ed Rendell said in a statement. Rendell's 2002 gubernatorial campaign adviser and eventual choice for turnpike CEO, Joseph Brimmeier, was one of seven former turnpike executives and officials indicted by the grand jury, along with former state Senate Democratic leader Robert Mellow. And Rendell - or, as the grand jurors fondly nicknamed him, Gubernatorial Candidate No. 1 - was among those who reaped campaign contributions from turnpike vendors. You know, the thirsty animals.

Gubernatorial Candidate No. 1 was not charged. But it's worth noting that another guy who got a cool grand jury nickname, Senator No. 6, is Vince Fumo, the imprisoned former state senator.

Rendell did acknowledge that he had heard of Brimmeier, and in fact feels he "made significant improvements" at the turnpike. In contrast, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) told The Inquirer, "I don't even know who these people are." A former turnpike commissioner, the congressman threw in a triple-negative for good measure, saying of the grand jury findings, "I never did nothing nowhere near that." But the jurors alleged that one of the indicted former turnpike employees used Brady as a reference and habitually dropped his name.

All the ostensible obliviousness is starkly at odds with the analysis of the grand jury, which found that the turnpike's system was formalized enough to observe a "60/40 rule," under which the ruling party got 60 percent of the spoils to the opposition's 40 percent. The bipartisanship, at least, is admirable.

The recently minted state attorney general, Kathleen Kane, and particularly her predecessor in the office, Gov. Corbett, deserve credit for leading the four-year investigation. The grand jury found that the practices it exposed have and continue to cost "untold millions" - in a state constantly scrambling, we're told, for transportation funding.

As governor, Corbett has taken steps to control the turnpike, adding an internal watchdog for example. But the grand jury findings, along with a recent audit documenting turnpike commissioners' excessive expenses, show that the animals won't be tamed so easily.

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