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Turnpike staffer testifies about contractor's cozy dealings with officials

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 12:06 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Testimony at a preliminary hearing Wednesday in a pay-to-play scandal at the Pennsylvania Turnpike included allegations of gifts to agency officials.

During the third day of the hearing, expected to last through Friday, testimony began to emerge about agency officials and vendors also raising campaign money, mostly for top Democrats.

Prosecutors allege officials rigged contracts in return for campaign donations and gifts, travel and perks from turnpike vendors. Six defendants face charges at the hearing before District Justice William Wenner.

Former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, 65, of Ross; former agency chairman Mitchell Rubin, 61, of Philadelphia; and former Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow, 70, of Scranton are among the defendants. They include former Turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg; Dennis Miller, 51, a vendor; and vendor consultant Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, of Pottstown. They face charges from bid rigging and bribery to conspiracy. Suzenski faces one count of restricted activities.

In testimony on Wednesday, former turnpike chief of staff testified that Miller, a vice president of Ciber Inc., told her that he was embarrassed that a holiday gift he gave Hatalowich didn't compare well with gifts others gave the official.

Deborah Davis, the former staff director, did not specify the gift and under cross-examination said she did not know its value.

Davis testified that Brimmeier invited her to attend a $5,000-per-person fundraiser for former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's 2006 re-election when she asked how she could help. She said she attended but believed she was not able to pay the full amount.

Under cross-examination by Brimmeier's attorney William Winning, Davis testified that Brimmeier did not pressure her in any way.

Davis said she had concerns about a 2005 computer project that Ciber Inc. won with a bid higher than five other bidders, including IBM and Deloitte Consulting.

At the start of meetings on the project, Miller and Hatalowich would begin “talking about the night before and the dinners,” Davis said. Sometimes they talked about poker games, she said.

“George (Hatalowich) had a very personal relationship with Dennis (Miller),” she said.

James A. Smith, a former senior vice president of Buchart Horn Inc., an engineering firm, testified it was important to attend fundraising events or firms “probably wouldn't be noticed.” He said Hatalowich in 2006 asked him to contact “four or five people” from other engineering firms to let them know about a Rendell fundraiser.

Rendell has denied any involvement or knowledge of the pay-to-play allegations.

A Ciber subcontractor, George Droll, testified Miller asked him to donate $1,000 to ex-Senate power broker Vincent Fumo's re-election campaign. Droll said he “had no idea who Fumo was.” The Philadelphia Democrat is in federal prison on separate corruption charges.

Droll wrote the check but declined when Miller asked him to run a trip to Mexico for turnpike officials.

“It just didn't feel right,” Droll said.

Defense attorneys said there is a First Amendment right to donate to campaigns.

Hatalowich twice asked for tickets to Pirates games and an apartment for guests, said John J. Porter, the Western regional manager for McTish Kunkel & Associates in Pittsburgh. A string of emails shown on a large screen in the courtroom showed their discussion about tickets occurred with other dialogue about when the turnpike would announce projects that would interest McTish.

Under cross-examination, Porter said Hatalowich did not provide details about contracts or who won the bidding.

Through questioning, William Fetterhoff, Hatalowich's attorney, also established that the tickets added no extra cost for McTish since they regularly bought season tickets.

At the hearing, prosecutors must provide sufficient evidence to take the case to trial in Common Pleas Court.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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