Public picks up tab for ex-Pennsylvania Turnpike officials in corruption probe
HARRISBURG — The Turnpike Commission paid legal bills totaling $259,202 for top agency officials facing corruption charges, records show.
The bills covered legal costs of four defendants during a grand jury investigation that resulted in criminal charges against eight people. Prosecutors say campaign donations and gifts paved the way to contracts with the independent agency overseeing 552 miles of tolled highway.
With a potential $8 billion turnpike debt, “it doesn't appear to be appropriate use of public funds” to pay legal bills of people who were under investigation, said former Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview.
“The turnpike is drowning in debt,” said Wagner, who released an audit of the agency before leaving office in January.
Carl Defebo Jr., a turnpike spokesman, said the commission stopped paying outside lawyers' fees once the Attorney General's Office charged the former officials.
“Why should you defend someone that freelanced with taxpayers' dollars?” said Dave McGuirk of Jefferson, who has tracked the turnpike's rising debt for years. “This (corruption) goes so deep that no one's legal fees should be paid.”
Former Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich of Harrisburg ran up the largest legal tab: $132,902 paid to Welsh & Recker law firm in Philadelphia, according to figures released by the commission in response to a Right to Know Law request from the Tribune-Review. His attorney, Catherine Recker, declined to comment.
The turnpike paid $119,506 in legal bills for former CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross, a longtime Western Pennsylvania political figure represented by Cozen O'Connor law firm in Philadelphia. Brimmeier's attorney, William Winning, did not return a phone call.
The other two payments were much smaller amounts for former employee Raymond Zajicek and related costs for former Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin.
The $259,202 for the four men is separate from $1.9 million the turnpike paid Conrad O'Brien law firm in Philadelphia to represent the agency throughout the investigation, according to a figure the turnpike released last year.
Brimmeier is accused of unlawful bid-rigging, commercial bribery and conspiracy. Hatalowich faces similar charges, as well as several others.
Rubin of Philadelphia is charged with commercial bribery, bid-rigging and conspiracy. Zajicek of Tarpon Springs, Fla., is charged with theft, misapplication of entrusted property, unauthorized use of state automobiles and simple assault.
The turnpike operates largely on toll revenue but receives tax money for the Mon Fayette and Southern Beltway projects.
“Being sued is one of the modern facts of life of any sort of public service, and it's not fair to make a government official or employee foot that cost merely because he or she is doing his or her job,” said John Burkoff, a law school professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
“But the policy balance changes when criminal charges are brought,” he said. “It's equally unfair to make the public pay for the defense of someone where probable cause has been established that he or she committed a crime.”
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who succeeded Wagner as the state's fiscal watchdog, said his standard for paying legal fees is whether people's actions “were within the scope of their employment or not.” If it is proven to be outside that which their government jobs allowed, the money should be paid back, DePasquale said.
The turnpike is not alone in paying legal fees of employees who are in trouble with the law.
Penn State University has spent about $4.4 million to pay lawyers representing employees called before an investigative grand jury and three former university officials charged in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal. Penn State is considered a state-affiliated university. Although it received $227.7 million in state subsidies this year, it is not under state control.
The Legislature has spent more than $15 million since 2006 on legal fees for federal, state and local corruption cases to provide representation to people called before grand juries and those under investigation. The state cuts off fees the day someone is charged.
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and firstname.lastname@example.org.