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State AG, grand jury looking at employment and politics at Turnpike Commission

| Friday, July 13, 2012, 4:08 p.m.
The Monroeville Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike is shown in this file photo. A state grand jury is investigating 'employment practices, procurement practices and use of Commonwealth resources to conduct political activities' at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, a rare court filing states.

HARRISBURG — A state grand jury is investigating “employment practices, procurement practices and use of Commonwealth resources to conduct political activities” at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, a rare court filing states.

The document, unsealed by the state Supreme Court, shows what the state Attorney General's Office is investigating at the agency. The grand jury began taking secret testimony in 2009 but little has been heard since the agency confirmed the investigation at that time.

Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone and Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, declined comment on Friday.

But in a court document, the agency says it has “fully cooperated” and provided 140,000 documents and emails to investigators.

“It shouldn't be a surprise at all that the Turnpike Commission is still under investigation,” said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a turnpike critic. “It has long been recognized as a haven for political patronage and misdeeds.

“Is there any other agency in Pennsylvania that has had not one but two full-length books written on its depth and breadth of corruption and abuse?”

Critics like William Keisling, who authored two books on the turnpike, have long complained about patronage at the turnpike. But “procurement” and use of state resources for political activities are new twists for the grand jury. Using public resources for campaigns was a theme in 25 prosecutions of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature by the attorney general.

Twenty-two people were convicted by juries, or pleaded guilty.

The court document surfaced because the Turnpike Commission through its outside lawyers appealed Senior Judge Barry Feudale's ruling in April denying the commission a “protective order” for papers it claims are covered by attorney-client privilege. Feudale is a Commonwealth Court judge who oversees the grand jury.

The Supreme Court this week agreed in a one-page order to review the case and in doing so unsealed the docket, The Legal Intelligencer of Philadelphia reported. Justice Thomas G. Saylor dissented.

The commission sought to file the appeal under seal but the court rejected that.

Feudale's ruling indicated that attorney general's agents copied the commission's computer hard drives and its Microsoft Exchange server, which contains all emails sent or received by agency personnel.

Prosecutors have not searched potentially privileged communications, turnpike lawyers believe.

At issue are emails between turnpike commissioners and in-house and outside lawyers.

The grand jury began taking testimony in Pittsburgh but it moved to Dauphin County in 2011.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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