Witness: Brimmeier insistent Turnpike 'not a pay-to-play organization'

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 10:39 a.m.

HARRISBURG — In a dramatic development at a preliminary hearing on Thursday, a marketing executive for a Pennsylvania Turnpike vendor said then-CEO Joe Brimmeier “lost his mind” when she told him that her company had been hit up for a $12,000 campaign contribution just as an agency contract award was to be announced.

“He went berserk,” said Jill Thompson of Uniontown, who works for Orth-Rodgers, a consulting engineering firm.

She quoted Brimmeier as saying, “‘Don't ever do anything like that. We're not a pay-to-play organization.'” Despite sipping a cranberry vodka, he would not calm down through the dinner in a Harrisburg restaurant, Thompson said.

It was a shocker because Brimmeier faces criminal charges for heading a pay-to-play organization and because Thompson was a prosecution witness testifying on direct examination.

She had been called to testify because principals of Orth-Rodgers made $103,700 in campaign donations to candidates with the most influence over the turnpike and because it provided perks such as Las Vegas and Tampa trips to Brimmeier's co-defendant George Hatalowich, according to a grand jury presentment.

Thompson testified on the fourth day of a preliminary hearing for six people: one a powerful state senator and the others top turnpike executives and consultants.

Brimmeier, 65, of Ross; Mitchell Rubin, 61, the former agency chairman, of Philadelphia; and former Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow, 70, of Scranton are among the defendants in the hearing before District Judge William Wenner. The others are Hatalowich, 47, originally from Uniontown, the turnpike's former chief operating officer; Dennis Miller, 51, of Harrisburg, a vendor vice president; and Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, of Pottstown, a vendor consultant.

The last day of testimony will be Friday. But attorneys will return to Dauphin County Court within three weeks for closing arguments, Wenner said. No date is set.

Neither Brimmeier nor his attorney, William Winning, would comment after court. Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter was not available for comment.

Thompson said Orth-Rodgers, as well as a state engineers association, donates to candidates who support transportation. The association recently held a fundraiser for Sen. John Rafferty, R-Chester County, whom she called the transportation industry's “white knight” for sponsoring a $2.5 billion transportation bill.

But on July 8, 2009, Thompson received a call from a financial officer retained by the turnpike seeking the $12,000 contribution for Philadelphia-area Democratic senators the day before a contract would be announced that Orth-Rodgers had bid on.

Thompson said a donation was made but not $12,000.

Another witness, the turnpike's toll audit director, testified on Thursday that she received a lower rating on a job evaluation after refusing to sign an altered report that gave a better rating to a company that top agency officials were advocating.

Brenda Szeles-Bratina, the chief toll auditor, said that when she appealed her job evaluation to Brimmeier, he told her that she was not a “team player,” she said.

Szeles-Bratina claims Brimmeier told her that the company, Community Networks, “was instrumental in helping us” battle then-Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's proposal to privatize the turnpike in 2007.

She said Brimmeier told her that he wanted to “throw them a bone” in return for their help.

She did not allege a quid pro quo for campaign donations.

Szeles-Bratina said the proposal by Community Networks for digital video equipment at interchanges was the second-highest bid. An evaluation committee ranked it the lowest, a grand jury report stated.

Though the company did not get the initial contract — because a commissioner objected — Brimmeier found a way to steer work to Community Networks with a much smaller no-bid contract, the grand jury said. In all, the company got $1.9 million in turnpike subcontracting work from 2007-13.

The grand jury report said Brimmeier had a “long-standing relationship” with a Community Networks principal, “largely centered around politics.” Both were active in Rendell's 2002 campaign for governor, the report said.

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

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