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Turnpike practices likely to be unchecked

| Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005

Patronage, nepotism and excessive spending at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission likely will continue unchecked because top state political leaders benefit from the status quo.

That's the view of political analysts and lawmakers familiar with the Turnpike Commission following the Tribune-Review Media Service's report last Sunday and Monday detailing spending and hiring abuses at the state agency.

Via e-mail and phone calls, readers demanded to know whether there will be outside investigations of the Turnpike Commission or a reform movement in the General Assembly.

"Where's the (state auditor general)• Where's the IRS?" said reader Andy V. Allen, a financial and human resources officer for a St. Mary's manufacturing firm.

Don't hold your breath, said Jim Roddey, former Allegheny County chief executive.

"It is the way it is because the governor's office and legislators take advantage of the patronage and the fund-raising capability of vendors and contractors who work for the Turnpike Commission," Roddey said. "There's no interest on the part of the governor's office and the Legislature to change it."

Gov. Ed Rendell won't comment on Roddey's assertions, said Kate Philips, the governor's press secretary.

The governor appoints the five members of the Turnpike Commission, an independent state agency, with the Senate confirming the appointments.

Roddey favors abolishing the commission and folding it into the state Department of Transportation.

"There's no reason to have a separate Turnpike Commission. It should be under PennDOT," Roddey said. The commission could save $70 million by eliminating toll collectors' jobs and moving to an electronic toll-taking system, he said.

The newspaper study of the Turnpike Commission found:

  • The turnpike pays $120,000 per year to M&P Consulting of Hummelstown, the firm of Michael Palermo, a friend of powerful state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia.

  • Turnpike Commission Executive Director Joseph Brimmeier of Ross in 2003 hired his cousin for $34,195 per year as a plumber. He also hired the son of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat and former turnpike commissioner, for $74,637 per year as assistant operations director for the eastern part of the state.

  • Former Turnpike Commissioner Jim Dodaro of White Oak in 2003 helped his son get a job as an operations auditor for $55,795 a year. He also helped a cousin get a job. They are among "30 or 40 people" that he helped land turnpike jobs. "I've helped a lot of people, and I'm very proud of it," Dodaro said.

  • Warnings about Turnpike Commission hiring practices are contained in four legislative and internal audits since 1987, but have been largely ignored.

  • Mitchell Rubin, the commission chairman, racked up $72,000 in expenses over the past five years, including dinners at four-star restaurants.

  • Turnpike commissioners have gone on junkets to Madrid and Paris, the latter on two occasions, during the past decade.

  • Law firms with political connections are paid millions of dollars to handle Turnpike Commission legal work. A Philadelphia law firm that Fumo is affiliated with has been paid $1.2 million in fees since 2001, according to Turnpike Commission records. Fumo's office says he doesn't personally benefit from the arrangement. Cohen & Grigsby, a Pittsburgh law firm with connections to Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona, was paid $1.1 million during the same period. Defenders say the firms are exceptionally qualified.

  • Turnpike expansion projects bearing the names of former state lawmakers have contributed significantly to three toll hikes, the latest a 44 percent boost in August. The projects account for 43 percent, or $75 million, of the turnpike's annual $157.6 million in debt repayment. Two completed western Pennsylvania toll projects -- the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass near Greensburg and the James E. Ross Highway, also called the Beaver Valley Expressway -- cost a combined $544.1 million to build, and they've both failed to meet traffic projections and promised economic benefits.

    The newspaper "sock in the eye" series is "a classic case study of Pennsylvania's old-style patronage politics -- massive public boondoggles created and operated to enrich and empower a few powerful politicians," said Mike Young, a former political science professor at Penn State University who now is a pollster and public policy consultant.

    That used to be the norm throughout Pennsylvania government, and it remains "business as usual" at the Turnpike Commission, Young said.

    Young said the public's reaction to the series is paradoxical. The Turnpike Commission's practices are disturbing to many, but "general public satisfaction and approval of the turnpike's (road operations) is fairly high" in public surveys over the years, he said.

    Resentment and anger might have been fueled by the seven-day strike of 2,000 turnpike workers in November and the details that emerged about the employees' generous benefits package, according to Young.

    Brimmeier, the Turnpike Commission's executive director, defended the agency's practices in an interview last fall. He insisted that while some politically connected companies and individuals are hired, all are qualified. Brimmeier took over agency in 2003, after working on Rendell's campaign as a key strategist and coordinator in Western Pennsylvania.

    Brimmeier also defended the turnpike's toll-road projects in Westmoreland and Beaver counties, authorized by the Legislature in 1985, saying they cut travel time for motorists. State lawmakers who voted to authorize the turnpike's Mon-Fayette Expressway contend that road, when completed, will spur the region's economy.

    Scott Orosz, a reader from West Deer, found it "particularly disturbing" how the Turnpike Commission spends toll revenue and tax dollars. He said he doubts anything will come of the disclosures.

    Orosz asked to whom the Turnpike Commission is accountable.

    "The problem is there's no accountability," said state Rep. Joseph Petrarca, D-Vandergrift. The Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission need legislative approval to hike fees; the Turnpike Commission does not.

    During the 2003-04 legislative session, Petrarca introduced a bill to require the General Assembly's OK before tolls can be raised. "I was just turned down cold," he said.

    Petrarca said he'll try again and also might introduce a bill to fold turnpike operations into PennDOT. Petrarca said he realizes the odds against him are staggering. Even if he managed to get a bill through the House, it would be blocked by Senate leaders who exert influence at the Turnpike Commission, Petrarca said.

    He said the state auditor general or inspector general should take a close look at the commission.

    Allen, the reader, says, "We need a Turnpike Commission like ... a hole in the head. There's no reason it can't be combined with PennDOT."

    Roddey said only a major public outcry would prompt the Legislature or governor to act. The Turnpike Commission will "hunker down," waiting for the controversy to blow over, he said.

    "Nothing will be done," Allen said. "I feel certain."

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