Prosecutor: Turnpike corruption case breaks legal ground

Posted: August 21, 2014

HARRISBURG - A top state prosecutor told a judge Tuesday that the Attorney General's Office was "breaking new legal ground" in using "a pattern of conduct" - and not explicit "quid pro quo" evidence - as the foundation for its ambitious corruption case against Pennsylvania Turnpike officials and several others.

Special Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter said that the pattern would prove that a cozy and corrupt culture permeated the turnpike leadership, and that contractors plied officials with baseball tickets, golf outings, lavish meals, and campaign donations in return for contracts.

Brandstetter also faulted defense lawyers for demanding a case with "neat little boxes" with direct evidence linking specific gifts and donations to specific contracts put out by the Turnpike Commission.

Prosecutors lack such precise evidence, she said. What they can prove, Brandstetter said, is a pattern of conduct in which top turnpike officials, including the board chairman and chief executive, routinely used commission staff and resources to raise campaign money from contractors who feared a loss of work if they failed to pay up.

She said contractors also knew their gifts and donations would help secure the next contract, if not the current one.

Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis, presiding Tuesday over the last of two days of arguments on pretrial motions in the case, asked whether the prosecutors were trying to criminalize raw politics.

"Doesn't this go on everywhere, in every state, in Washington?" Lewis asked.

In the sprawling case, the Attorney General's Office says six defendants pocketed gifts that included $4,000 in personal travel benefits and a bottle of wine, and engaged in "pay-to-play" campaign finance activity that crossed the line into illegality.

Among other allegations, prosecutors charge that the turnpike's former chief operating officer, George Hatalowich, squeezed a contractor to hire the sister of the turnpike's chief executive, Joseph Brimmeier. The sister's architectural firm got about $210,000 in work as a result.

They say Hatalowich also pressured aides to improve their evaluation of another turnpike contractor to help it win a contract to install video cameras to catch toll attendants stealing from drivers. After a subordinate balked, Hatalowich downgraded her internal performance review, and Brimmeier told her she was not trustworthy, prosecutors say.

On the campaign-finance front, prosecutors say Mitchell Rubin, a Philadelphia businessman who served as turnpike board chairman, had mixed discussion of turnpike matters with advice that contractors should be on the lookout for invitations to political fund-raisers.

Along with Hatalowich, Brimmeier, and Rubin, a grand jury early last year also indicted two men who did business with the turnpike, Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski.

Those five defendants attended the hearings here this week. The sixth defendant - former Democratic State Sen. Robert J. Mellow - was absent. Mellow, charged in the pending state case with pressuring the turnpike to give bond work to a favored bank, completed his 16-month federal prison term this year for a 2012 corruption conviction.

Lewis is expected to rule in the next several weeks or few months on the numerous pretrial motions before him.

Defense lawyers have asked him to dismiss all or most of the charges on many grounds, including that prosecutors have failed to allege a required quid pro quo - Latin for "one thing for another" - spelling out which specific contract were tied to which gifts or donations.

They have also argued that their clients have been unfairly subjected to "selective prosecution" and, in Mellow's case, double jeopardy.

On Tuesday, Megan Scheib, who, with lawyer Williams J. Winning, represents Brimmeier, argued that the charges related to Brimmeier's architect sister should be dropped as outside the statute of limitations, since the sister was given the turnpike work nine years ago.

Defense lawyers also say that prosecutors have not shown that Brimmeier knew Hatalowich had taken steps to help his sister. Brandstetter argued that based on circumstantial evidence, it was highly unlikely Hatalowich would have helped the sister without telling his boss.

The defense has argued that prosecutors cannot show that the contractor for the video camera surveillance had ever won assurances that it would win the work.

Rubin's lawyer, David E. Shapiro, told Lewis on Monday that Rubin had always been careful never to tie any talk about campaign donations to a specific contract.

That was a constant theme for the defense during the two days of hearings: that any prosecution needed explicit evidence linking gifts or contribution to contracts.

"A criminal prosecution," William Fetterhoff, Hatalowich's lawyer, told the judge, "is not the proper place at the expense of the lives of these defendants to establish new criminal law."

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy

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