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Attacking Pennsylvania's culture of corruption

John Cole | The Scranton Times-Tribune

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Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

Where else but the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission would there be a requirement that if you see a crime you must report it?

It's like mandated reporting of child abuse for health-care professionals and employees of certain other institutions. And it's one of the new directives under turnpike CEO Mark Compton, who vows to “change the culture” of the agency, which has a history of scandals dating to the mid-1950s. Most recently, eight people were charged with crimes essentially for influence peddling, a “pay-to-play” scheme where contractors who provided campaign money and gifts often got the work.

Compton wants employees to feel comfortable about reporting anything out of line.

Former whistle-blowers at the agency, who did report allegations later deemed to be crimes, were hassled by top agency officials, threatened and, in some cases, demoted or fired.

Who was going to speak up in that environment?

By the way, we're not talking about taking paper clips home. These were multimillion-dollar schemes. There were powerful people involved. In those days, people like then-Chairman Mitchell Rubin had a direct line to his patron, Senate power broker Vincent Fumo.

Fortunately, those people are gone. Rubin is on probation in a federal case and charged again in the bid-rigging case by the Attorney General's Office. Fumo is in a federal prison in Kentucky. It wasn't just Democrats, though they were the focus of the grand jury during the Rendell years. It was a 60-40 split of the largess between the Democrats, in the majority at the time, and Republicans, the grand jury report said.

No Republicans were charged. But the investigation is continuing.

Compton makes a convincing case that he will tolerate no corruption. And while the vast majority of employees are good people, the corrupt culture is ingrained at the Turnpike Commission. It's been a nest of patronage and cronyism for decades.

The commissioners, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, are political animals. Former Commissioner Bill Lincoln, a former Senate Democrat leader of Dunbar, resigned from the commission this month. A contractor had provided a combined $6,100 gift certificate for Nemacolin Woodlands Resort to Lincoln and former Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, according to the grand jury.

Lincoln testified under a grant of immunity. Hatalowich is one of the eight defendants.

Some lawmakers want to fold the commission, which employs 2,100 people to oversee 514 miles of highway, into PennDOT. That's an uphill battle.

An atmosphere where people are free to report sleazy activity is a good start along with other reforms, such as “firewalls” around contract decisions.

But it won't get to the dirt beneath the surface.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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