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Staffer in eye of turnpike storm still on job

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 12:16 a.m.

HARRISBURG — The top Democratic staffer in the state Senate remains in his job, even though he told a grand jury about his involvement with two former senators in schemes to steer Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission contracts to politically connected firms.

Anthony Lepore, chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, testified under a grant of immunity before the statewide grand jury whose findings resulted in criminal charges against eight people on March 13. The charges grew from a “pay-to-play” scheme, prosecutors said.

“Tony continues to serve our Senate Democratic Caucus,” Costa said. “We believe his role in the presentment was one where he was clearly instructed to facilitate things. He did not benefit from this at all.

“There's a level of trust for Tony within the caucus.”

Lepore, paid $170,000 annually, is not accused of any crimes. He assisted the prosecution.

The grand jury report led to charges against Lepore's former boss, ex-Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow, D-Scranton. Lepore was the “middle man” for Mellow and former Senate power broker Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, with the turnpike, according to the grand jury.

Other aides have remained on legislative staff after corruption investigations.

House Republican and Democratic staffers, some of whom received immunity, testified in corruption trials during the past three years. At the turnpike, Lori Smith, an executive office assistant for commissioners, testified under a grant of immunity, the report stated.

Lepore attracted attention because of his top position in the Democratic Caucus, prompting Harrisburg news coverage this week by ABC27-TV, the Patriot-News and Capitolwire.com.

Former U.S. Attorney Jim West, speaking generally, said prosecutors routinely use grants of immunity. Continued employment for witnesses “is always up to their employer,” West said.

To encourage witnesses to cooperate, West would talk on occasion to employers and ask them not to take action because of the person's testimony, he said.

The Senate this week refused to provide the cost of any taxpayer-paid legal fees for Lepore or Mellow from the turnpike investigation.

“I am unable to provide the information requested because the issue of attorney-client privilege (is) currently before Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the matter of Levy vs. Senate of Pennsylvania,” said Russ Faber, the Senate's open records officer.

In that case, Marc Levy, a reporter for The Associated Press, seeks state-paid legal bills for Mellow from a federal corruption case.

Mellow pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy, linked to his use of Senate staff for campaigns. He's serving a 16-month sentence.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media.Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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