HARRISBURG -- Six weeks after the state attorney general announced charges stemming from an alleged system of bid-rigging and bribery at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, CEO Mark Compton says it's clear the agency needs to change -- and that it has begun steps to do so.
In March, years of investigation by two grand juries became public with charges filed against two former top officials at the turnpike, a now-imprisoned former Senate Democratic leader and five others. All are accused of committing crimes in a procurement process that law enforcement officials said inflated costs while steering contributions to Pennsylvania politicians.
Since then, Mr. Compton said this week, the turnpike has begun a review of contracts and reiterated its procurement policies to vendors. The review -- announced in the days after the charges -- initially targeted contracts from about 2003 to 2010, the years targeted in the investigation, but Mr. Compton said that in recent weeks the scope was expanded to January 2013. Officials are following a "triage approach," he said, examining first the largest active contracts, of which there are hundreds.
"There is a clear sense of urgency to do this review, because the longer the review goes without these contracts being reviewed, the longer we're churning dollars in these contracts," he said.
So far, the inquiry has turned up contracts that raise additional questions about business practices -- "red flags," Mr. Compton said -- but nothing, to his knowledge, that appears to violate the law.
"If anything criminal comes up, there's no question that would be dealt with immediately," he said.
In certain instances, questions were raised about why contractors were selected, he said, though he declined to elaborate.
The turnpike's chief compliance officer, former FBI agent David Gentile, has been authorized to employ the services of forensic accounting firms in the review. Mr. Compton said he did not know when the results of the review would be made public, though he said he would know more about the results and timeline within 60 to 90 days.
Criminal charges aside, Mr. Compton said, his brief tenure has demonstrated a need for change at the agency: Since taking office Feb. 1, he said he has received four anonymous letters alerting him to what the writers described as questionable occurrences at the turnpike.
"It does tell you I've got a cultural problem I need to take care of," he said.
A new leadership committee within the turnpike has been instructed to develop a program training employees to report wrongdoing and assuring them that whistle-blowers will be supported.
"My perception is there's a fear that if someone may have viewed something that wasn't being done appropriately, and they called that out, there would be a fear -- something related to their ability to keep their job may be in jeopardy," he said.
In its report, the grand jury describes a procurement process in which the former chief operating officer, George Hatalowich, would indicate to members of a technical review committee which engineering outfit was the preferred recipient of a contract. An attorney for Mr. Hatalowich, like those for other men charged in the case, has disputed the allegations.
In 2011, well before Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced charges, the turnpike introduced new safeguards into its procurement process, Mr. Compton said, removing senior leadership from the technical-review stage.
As it reviews its procurement practices, the turnpike has reached out to equivalent agencies in New Jersey, New York and Illinois -- other states with lengthy toll roads -- to learn how they go about purchasing goods and services.
Ms. Kane said when she announced the charges that the investigation was ongoing. Her office this week declined to confirm the continuation of the probe or otherwise comment.
Each of the eight men charged -- with the exception of former state Sen. Bob Mellow, who is serving a sentence on unrelated federal corruption charges -- has been arraigned, according to the attorney general and the magisterial district court in Harrisburg, and the first preliminary hearing is planned for May, with most scheduled in mid- to late June.
In addition to the criminal investigation and internal turnpike review, Gov. Tom Corbett has directed his administration to review the business practices of all vendors named in the turnpike investigation. The review, overseen by deputy general counsel Christine Wechsler Rayer and Kenneth Brown, chief counsel of the office of inspector general, involves representatives of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the office of administration, the Department of General Services and the Department of Environmental Protection, according to Nils Frederiksen, spokesman for the office of general counsel. The administration intends to conclude the review within the next several months, he said.
Last week, a group of House Republicans proposed abolishing the turnpike and handing over its operations and other responsibilities to PennDOT. Mr. Compton, who was PennDOT's deputy secretary of administration when he was tapped to lead the turnpike, said his agency has taken no position on the proposal. But he said the two agencies are working more closely than at any previous time. His job, he said, is to work with PennDOT to eliminate redundancies.
Karen Langley: email@example.com or 717-787-2141.