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Brimmeier, other Turnpike defendants to stand trial on corruption charges

| Tuesday, July 16, 2013, 10:36 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Six defendants with ties to the Pennsylvania Turnpike will stand trial in a “pay to play” case in which golf outings, fishing trips, liquor, wine, cigars and extravagant dinners paid by agency contractors will become issues in court.

“This case is about improper influence,” Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter said, and it is about “a breach of the public trust.” Prosecutors allege a bid-rigging and influence-peddling scheme.

Two defendants weren't in the courtroom on Tuesday as District Judge William Wenner announced the six would go to Common Pleas Court on all charges. Former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier is in Florida, his lawyer said, and former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow of Scranton is in federal prison on unrelated corruption charges.

Lawyers argued their case on the sixth day of a preliminary hearing. Testimony was heard last month.

Brimmeier, 65, a well-known politico from Ross, and the others face charges stemming from a grand jury investigation directed by the Attorney General's Office.

The charges range from commercial bribery to bid-rigging and conspiracy for some defendants.

Prosecutors allege turnpike officials and vendors were directed to raise campaign money for state officials and that vendors lavished some with gifts. Officials steered contracts to companies that donated money or gifts, prosecutors allege.

“The fact that a public entity would be involved directly with campaign events is inappropriate,” Brandstetter said. She argued the Turnpike Commission “is not a playground for your sister to get work, or for a friend of yours to get work.”

Brimmeier has a conflict of interest charge for allegedly securing work for his sister Jan Brimmeier as a sub-contractor for Wilber Smith & Associates, a Turnpike contractor.

“In my 30 years plus of doing this, I have never been convinced of a client's actual innocence more than in this case,” William Winning, Brimmeier's lawyer, told the court.

“We are not even on the same planet here, in regard to an explicit quid pro quo” of a bribe for official actions by Brimmeier, Winning said.

The case is “extraordinarily weak,” William Fetterhoff, attorney for former Turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, formerly of Uniontown, told reporters.

Along with Brimmeier, Mellow, 70, and Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg, the other defendants are former agency chairman Mitchell Rubin, 61, of Philadelphia; Dennis Miller, 51, of Harrisburg, a vendor vice president; and Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, of Pottstown, a vendor consultant. Suzenski faces only a charge of restricted activities.

The prosecution's theory is that the Senate exerted significant influence over the Turnpike Commission. As a leader, Mellow made demands for jobs, campaign fundraising goals by Turnpike officials and contractors, and he intervened to get bond work for a PNC Bank affiliate, Brandstetter said.

“There is no evidence in this case Mr. Mellow did anything wrong,” said his Scranton lawyer, Sal Cognetti.

One of the issues at trial for Mellow is whether his friendship with a PNC bank regional president exempted him from reporting gifts from the bank executive, such as trips to New York Yankees games and what prosecutors say was a $7,000 dinner honoring Mellow.

Cognetti said state ethics law includes an exemption for friends' gifts.

Brandstetter said Mellow went to bat for PNC to get a bank affiliate bond work at the Turnpike.

“If this is a true friendship, declare it (on financial disclosure statements),” she said.

The timing of the gifts and the fact that they were reimbursed by PNC Bank are part of that context, Brandstetter argued in a memorandum filed with the 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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