A Familiar Political Tale

Posted: April 02, 2013

IT'S EITHER a case of "gee, what a coincidence" or "guess some things never change."

On March 7, Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi was hosted at a political fundraiser in Pittsburgh co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman William Lieberman.

The $1,000-a-head event was held at a private downtown venue, the Rivers Club.

The invitation reads, "Please make checks payable to: 'Friends of Dominic Pileggi,'" and notes, "We are permitted to accept unlimited personal, partnership, sole proprietorship or PAC donations."

Six days later, March 13, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced criminal charges against eight people in a Turnpike Commission corruption case.

She described a pay-to-play system involving both parties that, among other things, fed money to campaigns and cost the public "untold millions of dollars."

At the announcement, State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan called turnpike operations "a culture of greed, corruption and political influence that is beyond imagination."

The investigation, years in the making, is ongoing.

Lieberman, unnamed in the probe, is president of a Pittsburgh insurance firm and a frequent donor to candidates of both parties.

He was nominated to the turnpike panel by former Gov. Ed Rendell in May 2010, confirmed by the Senate that July and named chairman in March 2011.

I wanted to ask him if it was a good idea to host a political fundraiser a week before what he almost certainly knew was, excuse the expression, coming down the pike.

No luck. A turnpike spokesman said Lieberman is "travelling."

His fundraiser co-host, John Verbanac, a Pittsburgh businessman and Democratic operative, declined to comment about the event.

In a chat with Pileggi, I note that the timing of the fundraiser seems, at least, curious and a tad ironic for both co-host and hostee.

"Well," says Pileggi, "you want some comment on your observation?"


The timing, he says, is "coincidence . . . I don't know that it was anything more than that."

He says Lieberman and Verbanac hosted receptions for him before.

He says he doesn't know how much money he raised March 7.

He says that Lieberman did not attend the event, that there was no discussion with Lieberman before the event regarding pending charges and that he (Pileggi) had no knowledge of pending charges.

The investigation, which began in 2009, was widely known to political insiders.

Sources with direct knowledge of the probe and turnpike operations say lawyers for the turnpike were advised well in advance that charges would be filed March 13.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo says he can't confirm advance notice but adds, "We'd heard it might be coming since last fall."

So what we have here is some bad timing and a reminder of how (and how much) money is constantly pumped into politics.

Pileggi was elected to the Senate in 2002. He represents parts of Chester and Delaware counties. He's been reelected since, including last year.

His campaign committee shows a 2012 year-end balance of $400,000 - AFTER winning re-election.

Asked why a veteran leader in a safe seat needs so much money, he says, "to assist other members in their campaign activities."

There's one more angle here: a peek into the status quo.

Just 12 days after the Pittsburgh fundraiser, the Senate State Government Committee unanimously approved a bill sponsored by Pileggi that would bring more transparency to political fundraising.

The measure, among other things, requires campaign committees raising more than $10,000 in a month to file details more immediately than now required.

Specifics are pending, but Pileggi spokesman Erik Arneson says such filings likely would be within a month or sooner.

Pileggi introduced legislation like this in past years and watched it die.

Asked about the prospects for his new measure, he says, "There's seems to be a lack of enthusiasm for the issue."

Gee, what a coincidence. Guess some things never change.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: philly.com/BaerGrowls

Columns: philly.com/JohnBaer

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