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Top Senate Democrat staffer details politicans' ties to Turnpike

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Monday, June 24, 2013, 11:12 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Tickets to New York Yankees games, limo rides and dinners in Manhattan during a four-year period were among perks a PNC regional executive provided former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow, a witness testified on Monday.

Anthony Lepore, the ex-senator's chief of staff, was the lone witness on the opening day of a preliminary hearing for six of eight defendants in a political corruption case involving the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The hearing, on charges ranging from unlawful bid-rigging to conspiracy and bribery, could last five days. Six prosecution witnesses are expected on Tuesday.

Lepore testified that Mellow directed him to intervene in 2005 to make sure a PNC subsidiary got bond-underwriting work. PNC Capital Markets eventually got $2.4 million in turnpike bond work from 2006 through 2012, a grand jury found. Lepore said Senate Democratic caucus leaders relied on turnpike officials for campaign donations from vendors and patronage jobs. The Senate maintained a “very close” relationship with the turnpike, whose members the governor nominates and the Senate confirms, Lepore said.

Mellow, 70, of Scranton is in federal prison on an unrelated criminal conviction. He did not attend the hearing before District Judge William Wenner, but his attorneys are fighting the charges.

Former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, 65, of Ross and former Chairman Mitchell Rubin, 61, of Philadelphia are among the defendants. Others are George Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg, the former chief operating officer; and former vendors Dennis Miller, 51, of Harrisburg and Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, of Pottstown, charged with one count of restricted activities.

A block away from the courthouse, Attorney General Kathleen Kane told a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon that her office charged “eight officials who were using the turnpike to line their pockets and influence elections. The turnpike is no longer a piggy bank used to fund greed and promote corruption.”

Lepore said he conveyed requests from Mellow and ex-Senate power broker Vincent Fumo to Brimmeier and Rubin. He acted as an intermediary between Mellow and Fumo, between whom there was “no love lost.” Rubin was “Vince Fumo's guy,” Lepore said.

Mellow had a friendship with Pete Danchak, a PNC executive, and wanted Pennsylvania's largest bank to get bond work, Lepore said. He told one of Mellow's attorneys that it was appropriate constituent work to help Danchak.

During one New York City outing, Lepore said, they rode to the stadium in a limo and ate in an Italian restaurant. On another occasion, a PNC-sponsored dinner at Spark's Steakhouse in Manhattan honored Mellow. Lepore said, “PNC paid for it.”

The dinner happened in 2007 during a Pennsylvania Society weekend, when lawmakers and others in government and politics attend receptions in New York, often for politicians interested in higher office, Lepore said. Mellow explored the idea of running for governor, he said.

Yet, Lapore told Mellow's lawyers he didn't think PNC paid for Mellow to attend Yankees games in an attempt to influence him.

Lepore never discussed a “quid pro quo” with Brimmeier, he told Brimmeier's attorney, William Winning. Lepore described Brimmeier as “a top-notch guy” whose integrity and honesty he never questioned.

Rubin in 2009 pleaded guilty to obstructing justice in a federal prosecution of Fumo, who is serving a 60-month sentence for fraud. Rubin admitted to holding a no-show $30,000 Senate job that Fumo arranged. Rubin served six months' house arrest.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405.

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