Defense lawyers rip prosecutors in Pa. turnpike corruption case

Posted: August 20, 2014

HARRISBURG - Lawyers for six defendants charged with corruption in connection with Pennsylvania Turnpike contracts ripped into the state prosecution Monday in a last-ditch attempt to shut down or seriously weaken the case before a forthcoming trial.

The lawyers said the indictment unfairly sought to criminalize the legal practice of dunning government contractors for campaign contributions.

And the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, the defense lawyers said, had fallen far short in amassing evidence tying gifts and campaign money to specific contracts.

"There is absolutely no quid pro," said William J. Winning, who with Megan Scheib is representing Joseph Brimmeier, the former chief executive of the Turnpike Commission.

Winning told Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis that Brimmeier never "said, suggested, or hinted" that any contract was linked to a donation.

Hitting the same theme, Michael J. Engle, a lawyer for a businessman charged in the case, noted that state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane had said that "the critical criminal element of quid pro quo" was needed for corruption cases. Kane made the comment this year while explaining why she had not pursued a sting investigation against six Philadelphia officials allegedly caught on tape accepting money or gifts.

Mark B. Sheppard, the lawyer for a private executive charged in the case, was even blunter in his assessment of the prosecution.

"Boiled down to its essentials, there is no there there," Sheppard said.

The lawyers made their arguments during a lengthy hearing on pretrial motions asking the judge to toss out all or large portions of the case ahead of the trial, scheduled for November.

Special Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter - facing nine defense lawyers during the hearing - is to offer her rebuttal Tuesday.

The hearing is one of the last official tasks facing Brandstetter, who led the complex four-year investigation that resulted in the indictment early last year. Her resignation as a state prosecutor is effective at the end of the month.

Along with Brimmeier, those facing charges include Mitchell Rubin, a former turnpike board chairman; George Hatalowich, a former top aide to Brimmeier; and two men who did business with the turnpike, Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski.

The sixth defendant is former State Sen. Robert J. Mellow, who is serving a prison term on a 2012 federal corruption conviction - and who prosecutors say held extraordinary political sway over turnpike contracts.

In arguments on Mellow's behalf Monday, lawyer Daniel Brier said that the former Democratic lawmaker from Scranton was improperly facing double jeopardy now that the state has charged him on top of the federal case.

Brier elicited testimony Monday from the federal prosecutor who investigated Mellow that he had shared investigative material from his work - FBI interviews and IRS work - with state prosecutors. Still, in a passing comment, Lewis said that Mellow's lawyers faced "an uphill battle" in making their double-jeopardy claim.

David E. Shapiro, one of Rubin's lawyers, said Rubin had always been careful not to step over the line in seeking campaign money from those who did business with the turnpike.

"He had a good-faith belief that as long there was no quid pro quo, he had no criminal intent," Shapiro said.

And Sheppard, representing Miller, said that his client was a victim of "selective prosecution," and that other contractors who had plied turnpike officials with gifts and made far bigger campaign contributions had escaped being charged.

"There were decisions not to charge certain vendors for impermissible political reasons," Sheppard said.

Sheppard asked Lewis to take the unusual step of giving the defense early drafts of the indictment, saying they would show that potential defendants were given a pass.

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy

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