Pennsylvania Turnpike corruption charges taint Brimmeier's reputation
Joseph Brimmeier, a former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission chairman, leaves the office of a district judge Thursday in Harrisburg after his arraignment.
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Joe Brimmeier rose through the ranks of Allegheny County politics and government in the 1970s and '80s but took his first state government job in 1985.
He was the western district administrator for Auditor General Don Bailey, who was entering a state row office tainted by the job-selling scandals by the previous officeholder, Al Benedict.
Mr. Brimmeier described himself as "one of the clean, top-notch people Bailey needs to do the big job of cleaning up the auditor general's office."
Mr. Brimmeier, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission during Gov. Ed Rendell's administration, is among eight figures tied to the commission facing corruption charges announced this week by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. The Ross man, 64, was arraigned Thursday.
Joseph G. Brimmeier was known as the "patronage chief" for longtime Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster, with links that stretch back to the late commissioner's first term in 1967 to a public break between the two 24 years later. From there he went on to work in politics and government for fellow Democrats Ron Klink of Westmoreland County, a congressman and U.S. Senate candidate in 2000, and Mr. Rendell, who named Mr. Brimmeier turnpike chief after winning the 2002 governor's race.
"The governor recognized my managerial and political skills to do this job. He told me to run a clean ship and refocus some of the turnpike's priorities," Mr. Brimmeier told the Post-Gazette in 2003.
" ... Gov. Rendell and I developed a political relationship and the rest is history, as they say," Mr. Brimmeier said.
Early last year, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald appointed him to the Port Authority board. Mr. Fitzgerald said he was first acquainted with Mr. Brimmeier through Democratic politics in general and in dealings on various issues during his time on county council. He said he was impressed with Mr. Brimmeier's occasional appearances before the council on transportation matters.
They became closer political allies when Mr. Brimmeier supported his bid for the Democratic nomination for county executive.
"Fast forward to when I ran for county executive,'' Mr. Fitzgerald said. "I was in a very competitive primary in 2011. Gov. [Ed] Rendell was very helpful to me and Joe was one of the people who decided to support me rather than [former county Controller] Mark Flaherty. He made some calls to fundraising people who were helpful.''
Mr. Fitzgerald said he viewed Mr. Brimmeier as someone who had a good reputation for his performance at the turnpike.
"I got to know Joe even better though ... when I was looking for someone for the Port Authority. I thought, 'here's Joe who had done a good job for the turnpike,' " he said.
"He made people work hard ... I make people work hard for the county. I'm that way,'' he continued. "If you're going to get a job for the county, I want people that are going to work, and I felt that Joe had that reputation and that philosophy.''
Mr. Fitzgerald said that he had been pleased with Mr. Brimmeier's work on the board, which is why he had been poised to name him as the agency's interim director after he engineered the ouster of the former transit chief, Steve Bland.
"At the Port Authority, he never once suggested 'give this person a contract, give that person a contract.' Everything Joe did at the Port Authority was about, 'Let's clean up that station, or the drivers should be more courteous; better signage at the park-and-ride.' ... Everything Joe did at the Port Authority was all about making the system operate better.''
Mr. Brimmeier was the first turnpike executive director who did not rise through the agency's ranks and had to prove himself on the job. Sal Sirabella, who had worked in county government alongside Mr. Brimmeier in the mid-'80s and was chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll in the Rendell years, recalled seeing him at work at all hours around Harrisburg.
"He was a Sherman tank in the way he worked at the office," Mr. Sirabella said. "In a couple of years he had it cold."
He also was key, according to a grand jury presentment, in strong-arming turnpike contractors. Mr. Brimmeier was a key participant "in both the political fundraising process and the corresponding selection of Turnpike vendors," it said.
Mr. Brimmeier was born on April 1, 1948 and attended Nativity Grade School on the North Side, where Foerster coached him in football. He quarterbacked North Catholic High School to the Catholic League championship in 1965, then went on to Youngstown State University on a football scholarship. He graduated in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in recreation and a master's in higher education the next year.
He started work as a summer laborer for the county Works Department in 1967 and toiled the next two summers shoveling asphalt for the Parks Department. After college he worked for a year as director of student activities at Robert Morris College then signed on as a county parks planner in 1972. He and hundreds of other Foerster loyalists were fired by incoming county commissioners Jim Flaherty and Robert Peirce in February 1976.
Mr. Brimmeier worked a few years for the Community College of Allegheny County before Mr. Foerster and fellow Democrat Cyril Wecht took over the courthouse again in 1980, whereupon he was named parks director. By 1983, Foerster and Dr. Wecht had fallen out, with the former barely surviving that year's Democratic primary and the latter losing in it. Mr. Brimmeier proved himself to his patron that summer when he delivered 58 busloads of seniors to a pivotal Foerster rally in South Park that 7,000 attended, including all the top names in the local Democratic Party.
"Brimmeier worked the political miracle that Foerster needed," The Pittsburgh Press wrote in January 1984.
"He was part of a cabal at that time -- Steve Zappala, Jim Dodaro. At that time they were a significant part of Foerster's organization. ... He was a hard worker, you could count on him,'' Dr. Wecht recalled Thursday.
Foerster then made him his administrative assistant when taking over county government with fellow Democrat Pete Flaherty in 1984, putting him in charge of reorganizing his staff. He lasted only a year, however, after reports he undercut Foerster efforts to work with Flaherty, whose brother had fired him eight years earlier.
In January 1985, Mr. Brimmeier went to work for Auditor General Bailey, but returned to the county to become manager of four of its authorities in January 1988.
Then Foerster and Mr. Brimmeier had a falling out themselves that played out when Mr. Brimmeier, against Foerster's wishes, entered the 1991 race for county prothonotary. Despite having the endorsement of the Democratic committee and four times as much money as his opponent, Mr. Brimmeier lost in the Democratic primary to the late Michael Coyne.
After that spat the Foerster team fired two county employees who supported his former protege in the prothonotary's race. Mr. Brimmeier again recalled his own firing in 1976 for supporting Foerster, calling the commissioner the "biggest hypocrite I ever met."
Mr. Brimmeier too left the county payroll in 1991 to become manager of Monroeville. In December 1992 U.S. Rep.-elect Ron Klink hired him as district director for his congressional office, a job he would keep for eight years, leading to the congressman's unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in 2000.
Mr. Klink described Mr. Brimmeier as a diligent, capable chief of staff who grew in the job to master Washington politics as well as the more familiar Pennsylvania political scene.
"He did a great job, ultimately became my chief of staff,'' Mr. Klink said Thursday. "He was a tireless guy, and he got to know Washington well. ... His nickname was 'German Joe' because if he had a task at hand, he would put his nose to the grindstone.''
Mr. Klink said he wasn't familiar with the details of how he found a place in the Rendell campaign, but, "Every time that I saw Ed Rendell after that he would thank me ... for how strong Brimmeier was for him politically. If he said that to me once he said it 30 times.
"I hope this stuff is not true,'' the former lawmaker said of the grand jury accusations. "I saw no evidence of anything but exemplary ethics and good behavior the entire time he worked with me.''
First Published March 15, 2013 12:00 am