Judge sets August trial date in Turnpike corruption case

| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 5:51 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A Dauphin County judge on Wednesday set a mid-August trial date for six people accused of bid-rigging and influence-peddling at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Defense attorneys told Judge Richard Lewis that the Attorney General's Office should give them information specifying which gifts or campaign contributions were tied to contracts that prosecutors claim were subject to influence in an alleged “pay-to-play” system.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter said the defense lawyers have testimony from a preliminary hearing in June and voluminous documents that prosecutors provided.

An 85-page grand jury presentment in March identified companies that gave turnpike officials and ex-state Democratic Leader Robert Mellow of Lackawanna County gifts such as travel, meals, limo rides and sporting tickets. That document identifies gifts that people allegedly received and campaign contributions that turnpike employees, consultants and engineering firms raised.

Defense lawyers want prosecutors to connect the dots.

“Please tell us who we allegedly colluded with or conspired with to rig bids,” said Mark Sheppard, attorney for turnpike vendor Dennis Miller of Harrisburg.

Lewis did not rule on the requests. He set an Aug. 18 trial date for the six defendants.

Mellow is serving a 16-month federal sentence for pleading guilty in 2012 to conspiracy for having Senate staffers do political work and filing a false tax return. He's at a Scranton halfway house.

Daniel Brier, one of Mellow's lawyers, told the court Mellow's defense team plans to show he is being subjected to “double jeopardy” — being tried twice for a crime — something the Constitution prohibits.

“There's substantial overlap” in the state and federal cases, Brier said. When Mellow was convicted in federal court, a prosecutor gave FBI investigative documents to Brandstetter, Brier said.

Showing there's double jeopardy is virtually impossible without specifics on gifts to Mellow that allegedly were linked to a turnpike contract with PNC Bank, Brier contended.

“One issue that concerns me is double jeopardy,” Lewis said. “How do they prepare with the lack of information they are alleging?”

Brandstetter said the defense has ample documentation. She did not counter the double jeopardy argument because it wasn't actually before the court.

Prosecutors have said PNC Bank Regional President Peter Danchak provided Mellow with perks such as limo rides to New York Yankees games, paid by PNC. Mellow's lawyers say Mellow and Danchak were longtime friends and took turns buying tickets to Yankees and Phillies games. They say Mellow was doing constituent service.

PNC eventually got $2.4 million in bond work from the Turnpike Commission.

Former turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich of Uniontown was the only defendant in court. He is charged in the case with Miller, former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross, former agency Chairman Mitchell Rubin of Philadelphia and consultant Jeffrey Suzenski of Pottstown.

In a case prosecutors said is unrelated, Raymond Zajicek, formerly of McKeesport, on Monday pleaded guilty to theft and two other charges and received two years of probation. His charges dealt with absenteeism and unauthorized use of a state vehicle.

Melvin Shelton of Philadelphia tentatively is set for a hearing this month on similar charges and perjury.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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