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Expect turnpike plea deals

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
attorneygeneral.gov

The Turnpike Commission has long been the home of scandals, but nothing in recent history compares to the high-octane corruption case pending against agency officials, an ex-lawmaker and vendors in a so-called “pay to play” scheme that allegedly awarded contracts based on campaign donations and gifts.

All eight defendants are innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty. But if history is any indication — if the results of this prosecution by the Attorney General's Office resemble others — most of those charged will cut deals in exchange for their testimony. That happened in the Democrats' legislative bonus scandal and a computer-related case against Republicans that dwarfed the bonus money. By my count, eight defendants in the Democrat case pleaded guilty and seven Republicans did. Many got probation rather than jail time.

Every prosecution is different, so there is no way to be certain of similar results in the turnpike case.

One defendant, former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow, is serving a 16-month federal sentence, essentially for using state tax money for campaigns. He is 70. He faces nine charges in the turnpike case, from commercial bribery to bid-rigging.

What does a senator have to do with the Turnpike Commission? Because commission members, appointed by the governor, need Senate confirmation, certain key senators, notably then-Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, exerted considerable influence at the agency. The turnpike and its contractors were a “cash cow” for campaign money, the grand jury charged.

The contract largess and patronage was split 60-40 between Democrats, in power at the time, and Republicans, the grand jury said.

Fumo's man, Mitchell Rubin, was turnpike chairman. He is on federal probation following a guilty plea to obstruction of justice related to the Fumo prosecution.

Fumo is serving a 61-month federal sentence on complex fraud charges after his 2009 conviction by a jury on 137 counts.

Defendant Rubin is 61. Former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross faces nine charges; he's 64. Jeffrey Suzenski of Pottstown, a consultant to a turnpike vendor, faces one count of “restricted activities.” He's 63.

No disrespect intended, but these are old men. People in their 80s might disagree, but Medicare is available to those 65 or older, Social Security (on a reduced basis) at 62.

Defendant Melvin Shelton, a former turnpike employee, is 81. Another defendant and ex-employee, Raymond Zajicek, is 67.

No one — for sure, no one over 60 — wants to go to prison.

I'll say it one more time. They are all innocent until proven guilty.

But the talk in Capitol hallways is that some of these defendants, perhaps younger ones as well, may beat a path to the Attorney General's Office to cut a deal. Then the question becomes: Whom will they give up?

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

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