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Plenty of cirucmstantial evidence in Turnpike cases

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Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

Pay to play is difficult to prove. That was evident in the preliminary hearing for Pennsylvania Turnpike defendants, some of whom are accused of raising campaign money or taking gifts in return for state contracts.

It is called quid pro quo; I give you this in return for that.

Not one of the 19 prosecution witnesses who testified at a five-day hearing for six of the defendants said there was any agreement, discussion, even a hint of a trade-off. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence against some officials, especially former turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, being given sports tickets, travel, accommodations and gift certificates from turnpike vendors.

Overall, there were lavish dinners, barbecues, poker games — sponsored or offered by or with turnpike vendors.

Engineering firms with turnpike business, and some without, were solicited by turnpike officials for campaign money — typically money for gubernatorial or Senate campaigns.

There certainly was testimony of contracts, apparently being rigged — one seemingly as a political favor.

Multiple witnesses stated they did not believe the gifts or contributions bought influence with turnpike officials.

Consider Tony Lepore, former chief of staff to ex-Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow, one of the defendants. Mellow went to bat for a PNC subsidiary to get turnpike commission bond work. A regional PNC vice president took Mellow to Yankees games. PNC sponsored a reception at Sparks Steak House in Manhattan in connection with a Pennsylvania Society outing. PNC held receptions in other years for other pols, according to testimony. Many other large institutions or special interests do the same in the annual New York City outing for Pennsylvania pols.

Lepore said the trips to Yankees games were “probably not” to influence Mellow. In his conversations with Mellow, the former Democrat senator never said he helped the PNC regional official because of the tickets provided by a longtime friend, Lepore said.

Taking a step back, it's not a strong case. But one must keep in mind that prosecutors often provide just a slice of their evidence at a preliminary hearing. They need enough only for a district judge to find sufficient evidence to hold the defendants for court.

While defendants might be upbeat about the testimony, there's a downside: If the cases are bound over for Dauphin County Common Pleas Court, the chances for conviction go up. Dauphin County juries have shown no tolerance for political corruption or even hints of it.

Just ask most Democrat defendants in the Bonusgate case and Republican defendants in the Computergate scandal. To ask several of them, you'll need to be on the visitors lists at a few state prisons.

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

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