Hidden tolls: Indictments describe a turnpike of corrupt practices

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Allegations of bid rigging and corruption in the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission bring to mind a scene from the classic film "Casablanca." Just before the police captain is handed his gambling winnings at Rick's Cafe, he ordered the place shut down, declaring, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."

Shocked, indeed.

The turnpike commission has been a bastion of patronage and tainted practices for as long as anybody can remember. The only difference now -- and it is significant -- is a state grand jury's recommendation and Attorney General Kathleen Kane's decision to indict eight individuals associated with the commission, including longtime Allegheny County Democratic political operative Joseph Brimmeier.

Until the night before the charges were brought, Mr. Brimmeier was a member of the county Port Authority board. Only two months ago, he was Democratic county Executive Rich Fitzgerald's choice to head the transit agency. In an odd twist of fate, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett saved Mr. Fitzgerald from himself by scotching that appointment.

Mr. Brimmeier and seven others are accused of rigging bids for contracts to reward those who made campaign contributions or wined and dined turnpike officials and their favored political candidates.

Two of the men charged are longtime members of the rogues gallery of Pennsylvania -- former state Sen. Bob Mellow and former commissioner Mitchell Rubin, both of whom already have been convicted on unrelated corruption charges. Others are turnpike functionaries George Hatalowich, the highway's former chief operating officer, and former employees Melvin Shelton and Raymond Zajicek. The remaining two alleged conspirators are Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski, executives with firms that did business with the turnpike.

The damaging portraits painted by the grand jury's report, however, extend well beyond those charged Wednesday, and Ms. Kane noted that the investigation, begun in 2009, is not over yet.

Unnamed in the report but clearly fingered as recipients of largesse from turnpike vendors were former state Sen. Vince Fumo, who is serving time for abusing his state power; former Gov. Ed Rendell; and former county executive Dan Onorato, an unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Ms. Kane said they made no direct contact with turnpike officials or vendors and only in Sen. Mellow's case was evidence presented showing that he sought the influence.

The report raises an important question regarding the other politicians, though: Why would turnpike officials seek favors on their behalf?

Likewise, the report splatters mud on two Pittsburgh businesses. Orbital Engineering won more than $4.2 million in turnpike contracts over a dozen years despite a record of unreasonable invoices and slow or shoddy work. PNC Financial Services Group never won turnpike bond work until 2005, when Mr. Mellow and his chief of staff intervened on the bank's behalf. Although described as a pay-to-play participant in the grand jury report, at least PNC kept meticulous records of social outings it arranged for Mr. Mellow, and he now is accused of failing to properly report the gifts of concert and baseball tickets.

Sadly, the investigation and prosecution will not be enough to permanently change operations at the toll road. It will take leadership from Gov. Corbett to clean up the blight that has characterized the turnpike commission for far too long.

If not, it will remain true, as one witness to the grand jury said, that the turnpike is like a river in Mesopotamia. "All of the animals come and drink there."

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