Charges of nepotism and political favoritism again swirl around Turnpike Commission

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Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Turnpike Executive Director Joe Brimmeier in 2003
By Tom Barnes
Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- Claims that the Pennsylvania Turnpike is a patronage agency for state politicians have been flying around for about as long as the toll road has been open, which is 67 years.

But last week's attack on turnpike hiring practices by state Sen. Jane Orie has once again focused attention on the "who you know'' nature of getting a job at the agency that runs the 530-mile system of toll roads in Pennsylvania. The attack came a few days after an online newsletter leveled criticism at turnpike boss Joseph Brimmeier.

Ms. Orie, a McCandless Republican, is pushing a bill to eliminate the five-member Turnpike Commission and its 480 nonunion employees -- from top administrators to confidential secretaries.

She would like to put the roadway system under the state Department of Transportation, which already runs 40,000 miles of state-owned highways.

Ms. Orie said it doesn't matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. "The Turnpike Commission has been a bastion of political patronage,'' serving up jobs for sons, daughters, nephews and friends of municipal, county and state elected officials, she said.

Peter Samuel, a Frederick, Md., writer who works for the right-wing Reason Foundation and publishes an online newsletter called Tollroadsnews, thinks patronage has worsened under Mr. Brimmeier, the current executive director. Mr. Brimmeier is a longtime Democratic Party loyalist who worked for years in Allegheny County government before taking over the turnpike in early 2003, when Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell came to power.

"Patronage and boondoggles are bigger and more blatant than ever," Mr. Samuel recently wrote in a scathing commentary on turnpike hiring practices. He based his views on information he obtained from unnamed turnpike employees.s

Such talk infuriates Philadelphia lawyer Timothy Carson, one of the five turnpike commissioners. Mr. Carson said that many state agencies, not just the turnpike, get recommendations for hiring from various politicians and do hire some of them.

"Let's look at the real world,'' said Mr. Carson, who's been a commissioner for seven years. "Personal relationships operate to an organization's benefit, whether it is a private company or government agency, by getting talented people. We make no secret of the fact that, like other agencies of government, we get recommendations [for employees] from elected officials.

"We are looking to put together the most qualified workforce we can,'' he added. "Look at our performance. The focus should be on our performance. During the Valentine's Day ice storm, our workers proved they can do the job. I'm not looking to take a shot at PennDOT, but I'm proud of our workforce.''

A shot at Orie

Mr. Brimmeier didn't mind taking a shot at PennDOT, the agency he'd be working for if Ms. Orie has her way.

He said motorists had relatively few problems traveling on the 300-mile east-west segment of the turnpike during the Feb. 14-15 storm, while hundreds of drivers were jammed up for hours along 50 miles of Interstate 78 and other PennDOT-maintained highways.

The turnpike has been in the news recently for a third reason -- Mr. Rendell's desire to lease the roadway to a private operator in exchange for a one-time payment of $10 billion or so. Mr. Brimmeier, who is ordinarily an ally of Mr. Rendell, says the lease would be a bad idea. Mr. Carson agreed, saying a private operator would raise tolls much more sharply than the Turnpike Commission.

Like Mr. Carson, Mr. Brimmeier readily admits hiring relatives of some politicians, such as former turnpike commissioner James Dodaro, of Allegheny County, whose son, Daniel, is an auditor for the turnpike.

"He does an excellent job," said Mr. Brimmeier. So does turnpike auditor Suzanne Vessella, daughter of the late Lawrence County Democratic Chairman Pete Vessella.

"Suzanne did a good job for me in the early 1980s when I was deputy state auditor general, and she's doing a good job now" in the New Castle office of the turnpike, Mr. Brimmeier said.

Another employee with connections is Robert Brady, 34, son of Philadelphia Democratic Chairman Bob Brady, who is a congressman and a candidate for mayor in that city's May 15 primary.

"I've never denied that when a job applicant comes to me and has a reference from a politician, I follow it up,'' he added.

"If I find out that he or she is a good person and can do the job, I'll hire them. I'm not ashamed of anything I've done.''

Hire by hire response

Mr. Brimmeier also makes no bones about giving opportunities to members of his own family.

He hired a cousin, Edward Schauer, as a turnpike plumber. "He's an excellent plumber,'' Mr. Brimmeier said. "He graduated from a four-year union apprenticeship program. Then he got a master plumber's license. Then he went to Community College of Allegheny County and got a welding degree. We got a skilled individual who does a hell of job for us.''

He hired Shawn Linder, "the son of my godmother,'' who had a computer science degree, to work in the Information Technology section, "but I fired him after a couple weeks because he didn't show up for work and his supervisor complained to me.''

A sister, Bonnie, is a lawyer who worked in 2005 for Meyer Darragh, which the turnpike sometimes uses for outside legal work. The firm had worked for the turnpike long before she got there and she didn't do any turnpike-related legal work while she was there, Mr. Brimmeier said. "The fact that Meyer Darragh did work for us had nothing to do with my sister working there,'' he insisted.

Another sister, Jan, is an architect who has worked for an engineering company that's done work for the turnpike. But she doesn't work directly for the turnpike. "I can't prevent my family from making a living just because I'm director of the turnpike,'' Mr. Brimmeier snapped. "My whole family would have to move out of state.''

Mr. Brimmeier also encouraged HMS Host, which has a contract with the turnpike to rebuild all the travel plazas, to use The Doggery as one restaurant at the newly redone Oakmont plaza, which is to open in June.

It's owned by his friend, Tom Geanopolous, of Mt. Lebanon, whom he got to know when he was a county official working at the City-County Building Downtown.

"We wanted Western Pennsylvania foods that people would recognize in the plazas,'' Mr. Brimmeier said.

He said he has no apologies for that move either, because he wants to promote "a taste of Pennsylvania'' at the new travel plazas.

There will be Pennsylvania Dutch food featured at the new central Pennsylvania rest stops and Philadelphia cheese steaks at plazas in the southeast.

Questions also have been raised about $220,000 the turnpike paid in 2003-04 to a consultant, Michael Palermo, a turnpike administrator in the 1970s and '80s and a friend of indicted state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia. The federal indictment said investigators could find no discernible work Mr. Palermo had done for the turnpike, but he had apparently run Mr. Fumo's 100-acre farm north of Harrisburg.

However, both Mr. Brimmeier and Mr. Carson said Mr. Palermo helped on important issues, such as implementing electronic toll collection (EZ Pass) and helping with the new travel plaza contract.

"Mike Palermo is a bright guy and he was knowledgeable about turnpike business,'' said Mr. Carson. "There's no question he had political relationships but he was a good resource.''

It's difficult to get neutral, unbiased opinions about patronage hiring at the turnpike.

"The turnpike is generally considered to be among the last bastions of state patronage," said G. Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

"My guess is that over the years, there hasn't been much change in the amount of patronage.''

"It's hard to quantify,'' said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative think tank.

"But we haven't seen anything indicating that patronage has lessened in recent years.''

Sen. Barry Stout, D-Washington, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he's gotten people hired at the turnpike over his 35 years in Harrisburg.

"Both parties have had control of the turnpike over the years,'' he said. "But I wouldn't have recommended anyone for a job if they weren't qualified.''

As for Mr. Samuel's complaints about the turnpike in Tollroadsnews, Mr. Brimmeier said, "His publication is a rag,'' even though it's not on paper, but online. He challenged Mr. Samuel to say from whom he gets his information, and Mr. Samuel said that would damage his sources.

"I've called Joe Brimmeier repeatedly to get his side of the story, but he never calls me back,'' said Mr. Samuel, who has been following the toll road industry for 25 years. He agrees with the governor's plan to turn the turnpike over to a private operator.

Mr. Brimmeier said there are some disgruntled employees at the turnpike because he has made some changes and has demanded a full day's work from everyone.

"I make the people at the turnpike work and I made a lot of them mad,'' Mr. Brimmeier said. "Maybe some of them went to Samuel to complain.''

He added, "When you make hard decisions as a manager, you make some people happy and some mad.''


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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