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Grand jury report suggests more may be charged in Turnpike Commission's 'pay-to-play' scheme

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 12:21 p.m.
Joseph Brimmeier, former CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, leaves the office of a district judge in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, March 14, 2013, after being arraigned on charges he was allegedly involved in a long-running pay-to-play scheme at the agency.

HARRISBURG — A stunning grand jury report alleging a “pay-to-play” scheme for gifts and campaign money at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission raises more questions than it answers and suggests more officials may be charged, analysts said.

“The only surprise is there were not more people implicated in what has been a patronage cesspool for decades,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, which has studied turnpike operations. “Hopefully the buck will stop where it really lies: with those directing this type of activity.”

Dennis Fisher, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane, declined to discuss the probe. Kane said the investigation would continue.

“(The grand jury report) says both political parties engaged in it, yet only one party was named,” said Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. “Maybe Kane's office will use the information to track Republicans.”

For such broad and complex schemes — essentially shakedowns of contractors for campaign contributions and gifts — Kane charged only one elected official: former Senate Minority Leader Robert Mellow, a Scranton Democrat.

Yet she didn't charge the real power in that caucus, ex-Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia. Kane said the grand jury found no evidence against Fumo.

Mellow and Fumo are convicted felons serving time in federal prisons for separate corruption cases.

The grand jury report indicates Mellow was “sloppy” with solicitations and Fumo “would have insulated himself,” Brouillette said.

In addition to Mellow, Kane charged seven others, including former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross, with crimes ranging from bid-rigging to bribery. The money went primarily to Senate Democrats and gubernatorial candidates, the grand jury said.

A district judge on Thursday released Brimmeier, 64, on $100,000 bond.

“I don't have any comments till we get through all of this,” Brimmeier said afterward.

His attorney, William Winning of the Philadelphia-based Cozen O'Connor law firm, told reporters his client will be absolved of crimes.

“The presentment in this case represents a very one-sided and slanted view of the operations of the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” Winning said. “When the facts come out … I am convinced he'll be completely exonerated.”

The report gives no hint of why Brimmeier on his own would raise more than $100,000 for former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, as the grand jury alleged. It provides no suggestion of whether anyone directed him or requested the money. Rendell issued a statement saying he was unaware of such activity.

The report emphasized a 60-40 split of turnpike contracts and patronage — 60 percent going to Democrats, the party in power from 2003-11 under Rendell, and 40 percent to Republicans.

Yet the grand jury named no Republican senators. Former GOP Sens. Bob Jubelirer and David “Chip” Brightbill were widely believed to influence turnpike politics.

“I haven't seen it,” Brightbill said of the report. “I have no idea.”

Asked about Republicans supposedly getting a take, Brightbill said: “Not that I was involved in.”

In a 2005 series, the Tribune-Review reported Jubelirer's former top aide, Mike Long, directed the Senate GOP's interests at the turnpike. Long's private company, Commonwealth Strategic Solutions, has worked for the turnpike commission.

Long and Jubelirer could not be reached for comment. Neither they nor Brightbill is accused of wrongdoing. Voters ousted Jubelirer and Brightbill in 2006.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, “doesn't have any knowledge of the so-called 60-40 split,” said staff attorney Andrew Crompton. The same is true for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said his spokesman, Erik Arneson.

Wes Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester, said the brazen activity described by the grand jury surprised him.

“This is just out-and-out political corruption,” Leckrone said.

Said Kane: “It was almost as though they had no fear of being caught.”

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

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