Pennsylvania Attorney General announces criminal charges in Turnpike 'pay-to-play' scheme

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HARRISBURG -- Attorney General Kathleen Kane today announced criminal charges against eight men, including a former state senator already convicted of corruption, in an alleged "pay-to-play" scheme involving the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Ms. Kane said in a news conference that a statewide investigating grand jury had found evidence of secret gifts of cash, travel and entertainment, as well as political contributions to public officials and political organizations, by private Turnpike vendors and their consultants.

She announced charges against former state Sen. Bob Mellow, former Turnpike Commissioner Mitchell Rubin, former Turnpike Chief Executive Officer Joseph Brimmeier, former Turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich and former Turnpike employees Melvin Shelton and Raymond Zajicek. The attorney general also announced charges against Turnpike vendors Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski.

"According to the charges, those who pay to play have sought and been rewarded with multi-million dollar turnpike contracts, and the public has lost untold millions of dollars," Ms. Kane said.

The men were charged with offenses including conspiracy, commercial bribery, bid-rigging, theft, conflict of interest and corrupt organization violations.

The grand jury found substantial evidence that Mellow, currently jailed on unrelated corruption charges, was accused of having his chief of staff help supporters and contributors get business from the turnpike, and having him pressure people at the turnpike to support him politically and raise campaign funds.

Mellow, 70, was charged with corrupt organizations, bribery, bid-rigging, conspiracy and other offenses. A message left for a criminal defense lawyer who has represented him in the past was not immediately returned.

Mr. Brimmeier and Mr. Rubin face charges similar to Mellow's. Mr. Brimmeier, 64, of Ross, declined to comment Wednesday and hung up on a reporter. A message was left at Rubin's home.

Mr. Brimmeier resigned from the board of the Port Authority, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a press release.

"Joe Brimmeier called me last night to notify me that he was submitting his resignation from the Board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, effective immediately, in light of the charges announced this morning," the release said. "He indicated to me that he is innocent of these charges, but would be focusing his time and attention on proving that. Our justice system is set up on the premise that all men are innocent until proven guilty. I believe that and wish Joe the best in facing this challenge."

Mr. Fitzgerald, who appointed Mr. Brimmeier to the board, wanted to appoint Mr. Brimmeier as interim CEO to replace ousted Port Authority CEO Steve Bland. Officials from the administrtion of Gov. Tom Corbett exerted back-channel pressure to veto Mr. Fitzgerald's choice. Among the concerns they cited were various investigations of the operations of the turnpike agency during his tenure.

Officials said there was evidence that cash, travel, entertainment and political contributions were secretly provided to public officials and political groups by turnpike vendors and their consultants.

"The reason they made these contributions and provided these gifts (is) because they knew that was the way they would get these contracts," said state police Commissioner Frank Noonan.

The investigation, which Kane said isn't closed, began several years ago and has been conducted largely in secret.

In 2009, turnpike officials disclosed that the agency had received a subpoena from state investigators.

More recently, a dispute over lawyer-client privilege between the attorney general's office and the turnpike has been argued before the state Supreme Court. In that matter, the grand jury judge wrote in April that the investigation centered on "employment practices, procurement practices and the use of commission resources to conduct political activities."

The turnpike figured tangentially in the federal criminal case against former state Sen. Vince Fumo, convicted of fraud and related charges in 2009, because his co-defendant was married to Mr. Rubin, the turnpike chairman. The Fumo aide, Ruth Arnao, was also found guilty at that trial.

Mr. Rubin served six months of house arrest for obstruction after admitting in 2010 that he misled FBI agents and a federal grand jury.

Gov. Ed Rendell had ousted Mr. Rubin in March 2009, citing what he called "overwhelming" evidence in trial testimony that Rubin had been paid $150,000 for a no-work job for the Appropriations Committee under Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat. Fumo is currently in a Kentucky federal prison.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has about 2,100 employees and an operating budget of about $315 million. It manages 552 miles of turnpike, and last year it served about 192 million vehicles.

Four turnpike commissioners are chosen by the governor, subject to state Senate confirmation. The fifth commissioner is the state transportation secretary.

The Associated Press contributed.

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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