Turnpike drops $700K in public money to defend against whistle-blower lawsuits
HARRISBURG — The Turnpike Commission spent almost $700,000 in public money on legal fees to defend itself against lawsuits filed by whistle-blowers who claimed that politics and favoritism to campaign contributors or friends dictated business deals, state records show.
In response to a Right to Know law request from the Tribune-Review, the turnpike acknowledged spending $699,250 on fees for outside lawyers in four civil cases. The lawsuits were filed before a statewide grand jury issued a scathing report last month outlining cronyism and a “pay-to-play” culture at the agency. It charged that contracts were rigged to benefit campaign contributors, and turnpike officials received gifts such as travel and costly dinners.
“It's a disgrace,” Dave McGuirk, a longtime turnpike watchdog, said about the legal fees.
“I think it shows the magnitude and depth of corruption that has existed within the turnpike for decades,” said McGuirk, who has followed the agency's practices since 1992 when a turnpike spur was built in Jefferson Hills, where he lives.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane has charged eight people with crimes, including former Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow of Scranton and former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross. When the charges were filed, State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan referenced the whistle-blowers at a news conference.
“There were numerous employees who tried to stand up for the right thing. … They were terminated. They received poor evaluations, and they were isolated,” Noonan said. “They knew something was wrong, but they could not do anything about it.”
Turnpike CEO Mark Compton told the Tribune-Review last week that he found the grand jury report “sickening” and pledged to “change the culture” at the agency.
The turnpike won two of the four whistle-blower cases before the grand jury report was released. One loss, for Robert M. Wallett of suburban Harrisburg, is under appeal in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, said his attorney James West, a former federal prosecutor.
Wallett, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, “believes his dignity, honesty, integrity and professionalism put him at odds with the patronage, influence peddling and pay-to-play system supported by the defendants,” his complaint states.
In the other losing case, Donald Kovac of Whitehall, a former labor relations manager, claimed favoritism was shown to turnpike employees who were members of the Teamsters union. His lawsuit claimed he was unlawfully terminated from employment.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2010, while the grand jury was taking testimony behind closed doors.
“Do I feel vindicated (by the grand jury report)? Sure,” said Kovac, 69. “All of us should feel vindicated.”
Pittsburgh attorney Ron Barber, who represents Kovac, said he is “looking at” whether the case can be reopened.
“They didn't blow the whistle for money,” said West, former U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who represents two of the former employees. “It's because it was the right thing to do.”
The grand jury's report told the whistle-blowers “you're not a liar; you're not crazy,” after enduring years of backlash for speaking out, West said.
West and Barber said their clients with cases pending were unavailable for interviews.
Jury selection was expected to begin this week in Eileen Conroy's lawsuit against the turnpike. The commission settled with Conroy last week, said Barber. Conroy sued the agency for firing her in 2010, three weeks after she testified under subpoena before the grand jury investigating corruption.
Barber said he could not comment on the timing of reaching a settlement about three weeks after the grand jury's findings.
Conroy, a former Pittsburgh city council staffer and magistrate, got a Turnpike Commission job in 2007. Terms of her settlement for her “wrongful termination” lawsuit were not disclosed. Conroy lives in the Harrisburg area.
“There is a settlement,” said Barber. “It's just being documented now.”
Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the parties “have reached a settlement in principle; however, the fine points of the agreement are still being worked out.” That could take weeks to finalize, DeFebo said.
In another case, a manager who suspected problems with Colorado-based computer contractor Ciber Inc. was laid off for “economic reasons,” his complaint says.
Ralph Bailets, ex-manager of Financial Reporting & Systems, said he lost his job because he told superiors that the company appeared to have inside information that eventually helped it land $82 million in contracts. He also cited performance issues.
Bailets of Cumberland County was told by a supervisor to “lay off Ciber,” his lawsuit claims.
The grand jury claimed a former Ciber vice president provided gifts and trips to agency officials, donated $19,000 to the campaign of ex-Sen. Vincent Fumo, the Philadelphia Democrat with enormous influence at the agency, and asked subcontractors to contribute to his campaign.
A pre-trial conference is scheduled for next month in Commonwealth Court in Bailets' case, West said.
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.