8 charged in alleged turnpike corruption
HARRISBURG — Shortly after Joe Brimmeier became CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, he popped into former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow's office and told the chief of staff, “I'm your guy.”
Coming to Mellow in 2003 was a sign of a “good politician” and it meant that Brimmeier, 64, of Ross would make Mellow's short list of turnpike officials he regularly called for favors, Tony Lepore, Mellow's top staffer, told a grand jury.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane on Wednesday charged Mellow, Brimmeier and six others with crimes after a more than three-year investigation of alleged corrupt practices at the turnpike. Kane said the defendants took part in a multimillion-dollar “pay-to-play” scheme.
“These men were using the turnpike to line their pockets and to influence elections,” Kane said. “That is stealing from the public, plain and simple.”
The turnpike was the Senate's “cash cow,” and turnpike officials and vendors conspired to award contracts based on campaign contributions and gifts, the grand jury said.
Its 85-page report outlines “a culture of greed, corruption and political influence that is beyond imagination,” State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said. He and Kane said the investigation continues.
“We understand how important it is to maintain the public's trust. And certainly, we're troubled by today's news,” said Turnpike CEO Mark Compton. “... I can say that these actions definitely don't represent the hard-working men and women who keep our road open and safe.”
Others charged were former commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, former Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, former turnpike employees Melvin Shelton and Raymond Zajicek, turnpike vendor Dennis Miller and vendor consultant Jeffrey Suzenski.
Investigators found the agency operated under the influence of Democratic senators Mellow and “Senator No. 6,” whom the report makes clear is former power broker Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat imprisoned on separate corruption charges, because it refers to the senator as the minority Appropriations Committee chair from Philadelphia, a post Fumo held for decades.
Mellow, of Scranton, and Fumo are serving federal sentences for corruption cases resulting from Justice Department prosecutions. The grand jury received no evidence that Senator No. 6 committed crimes connected to the turnpike, Kane said.
Campaign money that turnpike officials received from contractors “benefitted senators and gubernatorial candidates alike,” the report said.
Mellow imposed “fundraising participation” on turnpike staffers and Brimmeier “took orders” from Mellow or Lepore to award contracts to particular vendors and require fundraising by turnpike staff and vendors, the grand jury claims.
Lepore explained: Mellow “would call (turnpike officials) up and say, ‘Hey guys, I need $20,000 for this event. I have a picnic. I need $12,000. You're going to buy three foursomes for my golf outing and five signs and ... I want you to put a dinner together with some of your vendors and I'll be there next Tuesday. I mean, there's no ifs and buts about it.' ”
Rigged contracts to benefit contributors worked like this, the grand jury found:
Lepore said Senate officials would tell Brimmeier to steer work to consultants or vendors they chose. Turnpike business, from engineering to professional services, was decided on a “60-40 rule.” Most contracts went to the party in power, based primarily on the governor's party affiliation.
Brimmeier was former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's appointee. The report does not accuse Rendell of wrongdoing. The Senate confirms Turnpike Commission members.
“I have not read the indictment, nor was I aware of any inappropriate activity,” Rendell said. “I am saddened by this news, because Joe Brimmeier made significant improvements in the operation of the PA Turnpike during his tenure.”
Brimmeier, who did not return a call, has been a fixture in Allegheny County politics for about four decades.
He resigned from the Port Authority of Allegheny County board of directors, a seat he held for about a year, in a Tuesday night phone call, said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who appointed him.
“Obviously, the charges are very serious. Joe indicated that he has done nothing wrong and will dedicate his full energy to fight the charges,” Fitzgerald said, adding: “I'm surprised.”
Fitzgerald in January recommended Brimmeier to replace ousted Port Authority CEO Steve Bland. Political pressure stemming from the turnpike's legacy of patronage, runaway debt and allegations of corruption during Brimmeier's tenure prompted Port Authority's board instead to name the agency's chief financial officer, Ellen McLean, as interim transit chief.
Brimmeier never shied from acknowledging patronage appointments. At the turnpike, he hired the son of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat and former turnpike commissioner, as an assistant director of operations. Brimmeier hired his cousin, Ed Schauer, as a plumber, and the son of former turnpike commissioner James Dodaro of White Oak as an operations auditor.
Brimmeier worked as a patronage boss for the late Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster and then as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Ron Klink of Murrysville. He played a key role in Rendell's 2002 campaign, overseeing Western Pennsylvania operations.
Several people with ties to the turnpike were convicted of crimes in recent years.
Mellow in January began serving 16 months in federal prison for using state tax dollars for campaigns. Fumo, whose ex-law firm was involved in turnpike bond issues, is serving a five-year sentence for a 2009 fraud conviction. Rubin pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with Fumo's prosecution and got five years of probation in 2010.
Mellow is expected to be arraigned next week on the turnpike charges. Brimmeier may appear before a district judge on Thursday. The others were to be arraigned Wednesday, Noonan said.