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They've got a friend in Pennsylvania

| Monday, Jan. 3, 2005

Jim Dodaro left a legacy at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

A long line of people, including his son, owe their jobs to Dodaro, who stepped down last year after 20 years on the commission.

Dodaro, who was paid $28,000 a year as one of five appointed turnpike commissioners, says he helped friends, relatives, politicians, neighbors, "people in need." The White Oak lawyer says he helped "30 or 40 people" get jobs at the turnpike.

At the turnpike, patronage is almost as routine a practice as handing out tickets at a tollbooth. It ranges from hiring groundskeepers to more lucrative pinstripe patronage of selecting politically connected lawyers to oversee financial matters.

"It's a patronage pit," said John Hanger, chief executive of PennFuture, a group opposing the turnpike's plans for the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

Take Robert Boyle, a groundskeeper in the turnpike's western regional office who is paid $39,332 a year.

Boyle also cuts Dodaro's grass.

"Hell, yeah, I helped him," Dodaro said. "I'm proud of it. I've helped a lot of people. I'm very proud of it."

Dodaro says he helped political allies. In some cases, he says, he helped people down on their luck.

As a commissioner, Dodaro also helped his son, Daniel, get a job as an operations auditor. Hired in 2003, he's paid $55,795.

Dodaro said the hiring of his son was an isolated instance of nepotism. He later said he helped only one other relative get a job -- "a cousin about 10 years ago."

"I own up to it," Dodaro said of helping his son. "To the extent I can legally and ethically help him, I'll do it, providing he's qualified. Then it's his responsibility to work to the best of his ability."

Daniel Dodaro would not comment, his father said.

Dodaro said he's known Boyle since he was a youth. Boyle cut Dodaro's grass while going to school.

"He still cuts my grass, and I pay him," Dodaro said. Boyle was hired in 1995.

A roster of pinstripe patronage would include the name of Michael Palermo, a friend of state Democratic Sen. Vincent Fumo, of Philadelphia. Palermo is paid $120,000 a year as a turnpike consultant. He is a former turnpike associate executive director .

The turnpike's $10,000-a-month payments to Palermo's company, M&P Consulting, began in March. It was a "sole source" contract, according to agency records. That means the turnpike didn't look anywhere else.

The turnpike refused to provide any studies or progress reports that M&P Consulting has produced for its fee.

Taxpayers also paid Palermo's company $45,000 last year as a transportation consultant to Fumo and the other Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senate records show. The state contract was not renewed, said Gary Tuma, a spokesman for Fumo.

Tuma declined to comment when asked whether Fumo, the committee's senior Democrat, helped Palermo get the turnpike contract. Fumo would not answer other questions about the turnpike.

Palermo did not respond to e-mail requests for interviews and could not be reached for comment.

"Mike Palermo has been a tremendous asset to me as an individual who came from the outside in," said turnpike Executive Director Joseph Brimmeier, of Ross Township, Allegheny County. "I'm the first CEO, executive director, whatever title you want to give me ... that came from the outside, to anybody's recollection. ... I needed some help (from) somebody like Mike who had the history of here."

PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler, of Crafton, Allegheny County, appointed Brimmeier to the job in February 2003.

Since Brimmeier's been on board, he's hired the son of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat and former turnpike commissioner. The younger Robert Brady is paid $74,637 a year as assistant director of operations in the east. Brimmeier last year hired his own cousin, Ed Schauer, of Ross Township, as a plumber earning $34,195 annually. He also approved hiring Dodaro's son.

Brimmeier, who was chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, a Murrysville Democrat and an aide to Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster, says he "recruited" his cousin for two reasons.

"One, (Schauer) is one of the most qualified people I know, and two, I wanted to prove to people here that we could get qualified trained tradesmen to work for the turnpike because they're guaranteed 12 months' employment out of the year as opposed to six or seven or eight months on the outside," Brimmeier said.

Brimmeier said the turnpike takes recommendations from politicians, but he makes sure they can do the work. "Do we take references from legislators and senators• Absolutely we do," he said. "But we also turn a whole hell of a lot of them down. If that person is qualified to do the job, and I respect that person or personally know they can do the job, I'm going to hire them."

David Crain, hired as a turnpike equipment operator in 2001, was making $38,875 earlier this year. He was promoted this summer to assistant foreman, at $44,393, records show. David Crain is married to Cindy Crain, a longtime aide in the district office of Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, an Altoona Republican.

"We weighed in, suggesting we know (Crain) and that he's a qualified individual," said Mike Long, Jubelirer's chief of staff. "But (turnpike officials) have to make the determination."

Long said David Crain has worked in trucking and mechanics. He is a constituent of Jubelirer's.

"We do that for constituents whether their spouses work for the senator or not," Long said.

The turnpike's 2,300-person payroll in some cases reads like a "who's who" of the politically connected:

Alphonse Lepore, brother of Anthony Lepore, chief of staff for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, of Lackawanna County, is deputy chief counsel, making $108,497 a year.

Melvin Shelton, longtime second in command of Philadelphia's 34th Ward under Brady, was rehired last February as assistant director of projects in the east at $76,204 a year. He's a former director of operations in the east, having retired in 1998 at a salary of $89,096.

Ronald Dininni, nephew of the late House Transportation Committee Chairman Rudy Dininni, a Republican, is employed as a right-of-way coordinator at $61,904 a year.

Paul Pistella, brother of state Rep. Frank Pistella, is a toll collector making $38,875 annually. Pistella is a Democrat from Bloomfield.

Fred A. Trello, son of former state Rep. Fred Trello, an Allegheny County Democrat, is a construction manager paid $49,316 a year.

Jeffrey Hess, son of GOP Rep. Dick Hess, of Bedford County, is paid $91,878 a year as a manager of procurement and materials control.

Douglas Fargo, son of former state GOP Rep. Howard Fargo, of Mercer County, is a toll collector. He's paid $38,875 annually.

Mark Bodack, son of retired Democratic state Sen. Leonard Bodack, of Pittsburgh, is paid $39,332 a year as a district inventory clerk.

James Manderino, son of the late House Speaker James Manderino and brother of Rep. Kathy Manderino, a Philadelphia Democrat, has worked at the turnpike since 1988. He's an assistant district manager paid $59,833 a year.

Most of the turnpike employees contacted by the Trib declined requests for interviews.

"I have no comment," said Shelton. "You guys are going to write what you want to write anyway. Why should I comment?"

Dininni said he was hired nearly 30 years ago, when his uncle was a state legislator. "My qualifications were more than adequate for the vacant position for which I was hired. Whether or not this association was of help during the hiring process is pure conjecture since the question should be more properly asked of the persons responsible for the hiring at that time," he said. "However, I am no longer naive; it may have had a positive influence."

Tony Lepore said he wasn't Mellow's chief of staff when his brother Alphonse was hired at the turnpike in 1991. Tony Lepore previously was Mellow's deputy and before that worked for former state Sen. William Lincoln, a Democratic leader from Fayette County who was appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell to the Turnpike Commission this year. Lincoln served in the Senate from 1979 to 1994.

"Alphonse never asked me to do that," Tony Lepore said. "He would not ask for or accept help from his kid brother." Alphonse Lepore did not return phone calls or respond to mail.

Frank Pistella said he helped his brother get the turnpike job two decades ago.

"This is a job (Paul) got through Jimmy Manderino 20 years ago. I talked to Jimmy," Frank Pistella said. Paul Pistella did not respond to requests for an interview.

Frank Pistella said he sees no problems with patronage as long as the people hired have the "requisite skills."

"Whether (patronage) is abused remains to be seen," Pistella said.

Legislative audits in 1987, 1989 and 1997, as well as an internal management study in 1996, found glaring weaknesses in the Turnpike Commission's hiring practices. Still, patronage hiring continues. Among the studies' findings:

A 1987 study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee found there was no actual entry point for job applicants and that various commission officials were recommending that people be hired or promoted.

A 1989 study by the same panel found that while "professional hires" were made for certain top-level posts, "sponsored hirings" continued to occur.

A 1996 management study by DeLoitte and Touche found that the agency's human resources department didn't play a significant role in personnel actions. Even department managers were not always included in personnel decisions. The report also found that comprehensive background checks were not conducted on potential new hires.

A 1997 audit by the legislative panel found the "influence of (political) sponsorships in hiring and promotion decisions." It recommended various reforms and increased accountability.

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