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Brimmeier raised red flags to some Port Authority board members

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 11:35 p.m.

Moments before the Port Authority of Allegheny County board of directors voted to fire CEO Steve Bland in February, board member Joe Brimmeier — who had the county executive's support to replace Bland — made an impassioned speech to other board members.

“He said, ‘The rumors about me are out there, but they aren't true. I haven't been indicted, I don't anticipate being indicted, I didn't do anything wrong,'” board member Mavis Rainey said. “It was completely unexpected, out of nowhere.”

Brimmeier, former CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, was arraigned on Thursday on charges he helped orchestrate a pay-to-play scheme in which campaign contributions and gifts helped to secure lucrative turnpike contracts for vendors. He could not be reached for comment.

Brimmeier, 64, of Ross resigned from the Port Authority board on Tuesday night, hours before Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced charges against Brimmeier and seven others with ties to the turnpike.

Some of Brimmeier's former Port Authority board colleagues said they grew concerned about his being on the board when they spotted apparent warning signs — from his sister's architectural firm applying for a design contract after Brimmeier arrived, to his questioning how the transit agency awarded contracts.

Others said they saw nothing out of the ordinary from Brimmeier. One recalled fondly that he brought doughnuts to meetings.

“I had heard rumors about the turnpike, that it made (patronage) deals all the time. Everyone had,” Rainey said. “So when he came onto the board, some of us just kind of braced ourselves because we were concerned that he wanted to bring new (vendors) into the mix or change the way we did business.”

She described the agency's contract oversight as stringent.

Port Authority board member Amanda Green Hawkins, a county councilwoman, found herself aligned with Brimmeier soon after he joined the board in March 2012. Almost immediately, he questioned Port Authority's policy of exercising option years in contracts without seeking new vendors.

“He said he had an interest in diversifying the vendors that Port Authority dealt with, and that's how I saw it, too. I have a particular interest in making sure that opportunities are provided” to businesses owned by women and minorities, Hawkins said.

“I knew nothing about Joe Brimmeier's past or history at the turnpike when he was appointed to the board, but things started to kind of creep out in the paper” about the state grand jury probe of turnpike spending and hiring practices, Hawkins said. “If I had known that when he got on the board, perhaps some red flags would have gone up.”

Rainey said she was concerned that choosing not to exercise contract options and awarding new contracts as frequently as every year would open the door for patronage and drive up the agency's costs.

Board member John Tague, who recalled that Brimmeier often brought doughnuts to meetings, said he “didn't think there was anything nefarious there or that he was trying to get business from family and friends.”

Board Chairman Jeff Letwin said he welcomed Brimmeier's questions, saying, “His view was that if we just continually renewed contracts, it would keep incumbents in place and wouldn't let any new (vendors) get in.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald supported Brimmeier to succeed Bland, but board members decided to hire an interim CEO and do a national search for his replacement.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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