Lawyers argue over sharing information in upcoming Turnpike corruption cases
By Brad Bumsted
Published: Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 3:57 p.m.
HARRISBURG — A so-called “pay to play” case the Attorney General's Office brought against Pennsylvania Turnpike officials is the weakest of three recent public corruption cases, a defense attorney said Thursday.
“Defense attorneys get paid to say such things,” said Joe Peters, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane. “We will make our case in court.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are arguing in court documents about how specific Kane's office must be in alleging crimes against former officials with ties to the Turnpike Commission accused of bid-rigging and influencing-peddling.
Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis will hold a hearing in January about how much additional information the office must provide to lawyers for ex-turnpike officials, including former CEO Joe Brimmeier, a longtime Pittsburgh politico from Ross, Mitchell Rubin, the former agency chairman from Philadelphia, and former state Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow of Lackawanna County, who is in prison on separate corruption charges.
Lewis has not set a trial date but lawyers estimate it may be next fall.
When the charges were announced in March, state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said the indictment showed “a culture of greed, corruption and political influence that is beyond imagination.”
Prosecutors allege turnpike officials and vendors raised campaign money from agency contractors and steered contracts to certain firms. Some companies gave gifts, tickets to sporting events, and provided golf outings to their turnpike benefactors, prosecutors claimed. Kane called it a “pay to play” scheme.
But William Fetterhoff, a lawyer representing former turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, said this case doesn't compare to two other major public corruption cases lodged by the attorney general's office since 2008.
Fetterhoff represented a client acquitted in a $1.4 million bonus scheme among House Democrats, and another convicted in a House Republican scandal involving the theft of $10 million in computer data and equipment to boost GOP election prospects.
In the “Bonusgate” and “Computergate” cases, there were questions about the guilt of some individuals but no question that there was a central criminal conspiracy, Fetterhoff said. Among 22 people charged in those two cases, 19 pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.
In the turnpike case, “no core criminality” is apparent, he said.
There's no evidence, for example, that donated campaign dollars for gubernatorial and legislative candidates won contracts for turnpike vendors, Fetterhoff told the Tribune-Review in an interview.
William Winning, Brimmeier's attorney, said his client “has done nothing wrong and should not have been charged.”
Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter rejected most requests by defense attorneys for more information, saying an 88-page indictment spells out the accusations and the attorneys could obtain grand jury testimony.
Brandstetter argued the requests are “an attempt to discover the Commonwealth's trial evidence and strategy,” which isn't allowed by law. She declined to comment.
Fetterhoff said his requests were “fundamental to the case” and had nothing to do with gleaning her trial strategy.
Mellow's attorney, Sal Cognetti of Scranton, requested information “to avoid undue surprise and prejudice, to enable Mr. Mellow to prepare for trial.”
The turnpike case began with an investigation by Gov. Tom Corbett as attorney general; his appointed successor, Linda Kelly of Edgewood, continued it. Kane brought the charges accusing the ex-senator, former agency employees and contractors of offenses ranging from bribery to bid-rigging, theft and conspiracy.
Defendants Dennis Miller, a vendor vice president from Harrisburg, and Jeffrey Suzenski, a Pottstown vendor consultant, were held for trial in July.
Former turnpike employee Raymond Zajicek of Tarpon Springs, Fla., waived his preliminary hearing and has a Jan. 14 court appearance, Peters said.
Melvin Shelton of Philadelphia was held for court. He is retaining new counsel and faces trial in February, the attorney general's office said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.
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