Prosecutors argue Pennsylvania Turnpike corruption charges should go to trial

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HARRISBURG — In the second day of a pretrial hearing in the state’s case of alleged corruption involving Pennsylvania Turnpike contracts, prosecutor Laurel Brandstetter argued the state doesn’t have to prove a neat and tidy “quid pro quo” — but that the prosecution can instead prove a pattern of conduct by defendants over a period of time that amounted to criminal conduct.

“There need not be an overt discussion,” Ms. Brandstetter, senior deputy attorney general, told the Dauphin County Common Pleas Court Tuesday.

On Monday, attorneys for several of the defendants argued the commonwealth has failed to show evidence of “quid pro quo” — saying prosecutors haven’t linked specific gifts or campaign contributions with explicit promises of contracts or other actions.

Six men — former state Sen. Robert Mellow, former turnpike commissioner Mitchell Rubin, former turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, former turnpike chief operating officer George Hatalowich, vendor Dennis Miller and a consultant for a vendor, Jeffrey Suzenski — were charged last year by Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office in a case that alleged widespread corruption and bid-rigging at the turnpike.

Ms. Brandstetter rebutted other defense arguments Tuesday, saying turnpike officials were directly engaged in political efforts, and “induced vendors to participate out of a fear that their absence would be noted,” and used engineering lists for political fundraising efforts. It is not illegal for public employees to solicit campaign contributions, argued attorney William Fetterhoff, representing Mr. Hatalowich.

“It is not unlawful for a public employee at the turnpike to accept a gift from a vendor doing business with the turnpike,” he added. If those acts should be illegal, the proper way to proceed is changing the law via the General Assembly, not by prosecution, he said.

Similarly, Mr. Miller’s attorney, Mark Sheppard, told the court if there is no “quid pro quo” and the state is pursuing the men based on a pattern of activity or relationships, “how are these people to know when that crosses the line to some pattern or practice? ... When does the conduct become illegal?”

Attorneys for Mellow argued on both days that his inclusion in the case amounts to “double jeopardy,” or being tried twice for the same crime. In 2012, Mellow pleaded guilty at the federal level of using his state Senate office for political work. His attorneys argued the state is charging him for essentially the same alleged scheme — improperly using his state office — during the same period, and using the same investigative materials and evidence the federal government did.

But Ms. Brandstetter said the case against Mellow is not based on the same criminal conduct, and the federal case makes “no reference to the Turnpike Commission.”

Ms. Brandstetter will be joining the Pittsburgh law firm of Leech Tishman next month; a spokesman for the attorney general’s office could not comment on who would be replacing her on the turnpike case.

Attorneys for Mr. Brimmeier also argued a particular charge relating to a turnpike subcontract for his sister’s architectural firm should be thrown out because it was executed beyond the statute of limitations, he was not involved with the contract, and there is no proof he even knew about it, attorney Megan Scheib said.

After the hearing concluded Tuesday, Dauphin County Common Pleas Judge Richard Lewis promised a ruling on the issues as soon as possible. A jury trial is scheduled for November.


Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. First Published August 19, 2014 2:36 PM


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