Will Turnpike defendants walk?

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.


It appears the state Attorney General's Office largely is ignoring the Pennsylvania Turnpike corruption case, doing little if any investigation to advance or expand it. At least that's this reporter's viewpoint based on sources familiar with the case.

Last week, it was reported here that Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter sits alone at the prosecution table facing nine defense lawyers for six defendants. That image, perhaps, was more than symbolic as inquiries were made about AG Kathleen Kane's commitment to the case.

Key sources familiar with the investigation tell the Trib there's no support from the front office — from Kane, a Democrat, or from her top staffers. Brandstetter declined comment.

“We are committed to ensuring justice for taxpayers in regards to allegations of corruption at the turnpike but we cannot comment on any additional investigations that may or may not be in progress,” said Kane's spokesman J.J. Abbott.

A grand jury alleged bribery, bid-rigging and pay-to-play at the turnpike under former Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell's administration. The turnpike is an independent agency but the CEO is the choice of the governor. Rendell denies any involvement or knowledge of wrongdoing.

My sources are incredulous that Kane, while facing criticism for not prosecuting five Philly Democrats caught on video taking cash and jewelry, isn't ramping up public corruption investigations. I later found out that might be exactly what's in the works, so it becomes a question of immediate priorities. A PennDOT perjury case might be the beginning.

Still, the turnpike grand jury reported a 60/40 split of the booty between the majority and minority parties. It's been over a year. Where are the charges against Republicans (the minority) taking their share? It would seem a natural fit for the Democrat attorney general.

How about the politicians who received campaign donations from fundraisers and phone calls by turnpike executives and vendors?

One of Kane's strong points has been her willingness to proceed with cases like the turnpike probe that began under former Attorney General Tom Corbett, now the state's GOP governor. She also brought corruption charges last month against Democrat Sen. LeAnna Washington of Philadelphia for allegedly compelling staff members to work on her major birthday fundraiser.

It's difficult from the outside to know what's going on during secret criminal investigations. Kane might have other priorities now and might gear up soon on the turnpike. Who knows? But some believe Brandstetter is being left to sink or swim.

Brandstetter won pretrial challenges aired at a hearing two weeks ago, including a motion to dismiss. Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis denied three defense motions. The trial is set for Aug. 18.

Meanwhile, defendants shouldn't get overconfident about this case, despite what they say is lack of quid pro quo for gifts and trips.

Ultimately a Dauphin County jury might decide it. Harrisburg juries have been consistently tough on public corruption. Little wonder, given what they've seen transpire at the state Capitol since 2005, when the middle-of-the-night pay grab signaled a new level of arrogance and greed.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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