Lawyers argue over sharing information in upcoming Turnpike corruption cases
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Steelers accomplish mission to get younger, faster on defense
- Bubble players get last chance to impress Steelers
- Asking price for Penguins franchise said to be at a record $750M
- 4-year-old transplant recipient Angelo Giorno from Derry on life support, family says
- American to halt 2 direct routes from Pittsburgh International
- Western Pennsylvania schools’ denial of access to roofers prompts suit
- 1 killed, another injured in early-morning Clairton shooting
- Movement along the offensive line continues for Pitt as opener approaches
- Locke struggles again early, Pirates lose again in Milwaukee
- Picketer found to be at fault in accident at ATI plant
- South Fayette native looks forward to competing in Miss America Pageant