Brimmeier brings problematic past to Port Authority
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
A former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO in line to head Western Pennsylvania's largest transit agency would bring with him a legacy of patronage hires, soaring public debt and the shadow of a state grand jury investigation, government watchdogs warn.
Joseph G. Brimmeier, 64, of Ross is County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's top choice to replace Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Steve Bland, according to sources who expect Bland to be fired if he doesn't resign when the board meets Friday. Fitzgerald, a Democrat, appointed Brimmeier to the Port Authority board in March.
“Brimmeier's legacy is one of patronage jobs and being an architect of (the state transportation funding law) that allowed the turnpike to go deeper in debt,” said Nathan A. Benefield, director of policy analysis for the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation.
“Come Friday, we'll know if anything is going to happen,” Brimmeier said, declining further comment.
“A lot of people are commenting on things, and many of (their comments) are false. We'll just leave it at that,” Fitzgerald said when reached by phone. “The important thing is that we have a strong, efficient transit system.”
Bland did not respond to requests for comment, and board members would not discuss the situation.
The agency's turmoil caught the attention of Gov. Tom Corbett, who said Tuesday, “I know Barry Schoch, my secretary of Transportation, and I are closely watching the events unfold at Port Authority.”
As attorney general, Corbett's office began a grand jury investigation into the turnpike's spending and hiring practices in 2009. Brimmeier served as executive director of the turnpike from 2003 to 2011. The probe is ongoing.
Last year, Corbett, a Shaler Republican, demanded cost cuts at Port Authority before agreeing to provide $30 million through the end of June to prevent 35 percent service cuts. They came in exchange for $25 million in annual worker concessions. Fitzgerald has lobbied Corbett to increase the state's contribution in years to come.
Brimmeier has been in politics for about four decades, spending his early career as an operative and one-time patronage boss for former County Commissioner Tom Foerster, his former football coach. Brimmeier had a falling out with Foerster in 1991 over Brimmeier's decision to run for prothonotary, a race he lost.
At the helm of the turnpike, Brimmeier hired the son of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat and former turnpike commissioner, as an assistant director of operations. He hired his own cousin, Ed Schauer, as a plumber and the son of former turnpike commissioner James Dodaro as an operations auditor.
Dodaro, 68, of White Oak would not talk about Brimmeier.
A Commonwealth Foundation review showed several of those with ties to the agency ended up convicted of crimes.
• Former state Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, is serving a five-year sentence for a 2009 fraud conviction. Fumo's law firm was involved in turnpike bond issues.
• Former Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with the Fumo prosecution and got five years of probation — with the first six months under home confinement — in 2010.
• Ruth Arnao, Rubin's wife and Fumo's co-defendant, served nearly a year in prison for fraud and obstruction.
Brimmeier's onetime boss, former U.S. Rep. Ron Klink of Murrysville, also landed lobbying work during his tenure, a Commonwealth Foundation review showed.
“Is that the record they want to bring to Port Authority?” Benefield asked.
Klink said he has “complete faith in Joe” should he be named to the Port Authority's top post, despite his lack of transit experience. Brimmeier rose from a role as Klink's district director to chief of staff.
“He didn't know anything about the legislative process in Washington before he got there, but he did an incredible job,” Klink said. “He's a great administrator and a smart person.”
Chris Sandvig of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, a nonprofit representing low-income residents, said community groups don't want to see “significant gains” from Bland's six-year tenure reversed, noting the agency cut costs, including runaway retirement and benefit costs, and eliminated poorly performing routes.
Costs soared at the turnpike under Brimmeier.
The turnpike spent billions of dollars on construction projects during his tenure, including adding to what already was one of the most expansive projects in the agency's history. Early in his tenure, reconstruction of America's oldest superhighway grew to include widening it to six lanes from four.
To finance the work, the turnpike raised tolls 45 percent in 2004.
Brimmeier also supported the state's Act 44 transportation funding law, which relied on imposing tolls on Interstate 80 to generate money for transportation. Federal law prohibited that, but the 2007 law still required the turnpike to pay $450 million a year for transportation projects, which forced it to borrow money and raise fares annually.
Debt rose from $2.6 billion in 2007 to $8.3 billion today. Tolls have jumped 35 percent for E-ZPass customers and 71 percent for cash customers since 2009.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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