Pennsylvania Turnpike crackdown coming, CEO vows
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Housecleaning at the scandal-plagued Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is just getting started, according to turnpike officials.
The commission's CEO, Mark Compton, announced Monday that additional overhauls will be made in the wake of last week's corruption charges by the state attorney general's office against five former turnpike employees -- including Mr. Compton's predecessor -- a former state Senate leader and two executives who allegedly did business with turnpike officials amid a "pay-to-play" culture that inflated costs and steered contributions to Pennsylvania politicians.
After reviewing the grand jury presentment, Mr. Compton said he could not comment on pending criminal charges but felt "personally offended" by the alleged crimes, which included bid rigging, forced political campaign contributions and the misuse and theft of public money, according to the state attorney general.
"We will not stand for it, and it will not be tolerated," Mr. Compton said in a statement Monday. "Our customers deserve better. Frankly, our employees deserve better. It is not acceptable."
Mr. Compton said he has directed the turnpike's office of compliance to review every professional-services contract cited in Attorney General Kathleen Kane's presentment, as well as all current contracts awarded during the time frame of the attorney general's investigation.
He also asked compliance officers to draft a memo to each professional-service provider highlighting the turnpike's employee code of conduct, the professional services procurement policy enacted in April 2012; and the compliance office's toll-free tip line, with instructions to contact with any questions or concerns about employee or official conduct.
Mr. Compton also asked for each employee to read and sign the employee code of conduct, as well as agree to abide by its provisions. Employees should understand that they are encouraged to come forward if they witness misconduct, and that they will be supported for doing so.
Also, the turnpike commissioners have directed him to convene an advisory group to review and critique current turnpike policies and procedures related to contracting and other business practices. Best practices at comparable agencies should be identified so that turnpike officials can learn from their methods and improve turnpike operations, Mr. Compton wrote.
"I want to make it perfectly clear to every employee and to all customers and stakeholders: The four measures introduced today -- along with the changes made over the past two years -- signify a clean break from any past offenses," according to his statement. "Now is the time for the commission to start moving forward, to restore the reputation of what I consider to be a great agency."
Several lawmakers called it a good start toward overhauling the troubled agency.
"It sounds like they will go a long way to changing the culture of the turnpike," said state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, who was chairman of the House Transportation Committee from 2007 to 2011 and now is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
"The people of Pennsylvania deserve to know that the tolls they pay and the state money involved in running the turnpike is being spent in a very judicious and efficient manner."
State Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, said he was glad Mr. Compton had ordered a review of all the service contracts and that he hoped that it would be the start of the real overhaul taxpayers deserve.
"These are damning allegations, and it's just sad this alleged activity happened at the turnpike," said Mr. Kortz, a member of the House Transportation Committee. "If these charges prove true after this all plays out through litigation, that this did occur, the taxpayers are on the hook again -- they paid for this, and they paid more than they should have because of it."
Barry Kauffman, executive director of citizen advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said the media, citizens and turnpike employees need to "be vigilant and make sure this isn't a short-term response to a sticky situation and that they don't fall back into their old habits."
The state also might need to consider banning turnpike employees from fund-raising at the state level, as well as imposing additional campaign finance disclosure rules -- including creation of a computerized, searchable database so citizens can see who is giving what to whom -- and a ban on gifts to state officials. The need for reform goes further than just the turnpike commission, he said.
"The turnpike might just have been the cesspool, the worst-case scenario of these problems," Kauffman said.
First Published March 19, 2013 12:00 am