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Pennsylvania Turnpike contract strings exposed

| Sunday, April 28, 2013, 11:00 p.m.

Giving money to candidates to help win lucrative contracts was common and expected, according to two contractors mentioned in a damning grand jury report that produced criminal charges against eight people connected with the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

One of the contractors said political donations were the price of admission for access to state power brokers. The other won praise recently for its latest project with the turnpike.

The tales of the two businesses, neither of which is charged, shed light on how the financial back-scratching benefited both public officials and the businesses and show how some relationships between them continue, albeit in an environment of increased scrutiny.

“For us, it's all about marketing. I'm more interested in seeing and talking to 30 people in the room (at a political event) than who is getting the check,” said Kevin Johnson, founder and president of the Pottstown-based Traffic Planning & Design Inc.

The report also alleged a turnpike manager solicited a Maryland company for money for former Gov. Ed Rendell's re-election campaign. The company, HMSHost Corp., gave $5,000 to Rendell's campaign in September 2006, three months after it landed a $150 million contract to rebuild and manage turnpike service plazas, according to state campaign finance and turnpike records. Representatives of the company did not return calls.

The turnpike lauded HMSHost last week for leading the agency's “green” initiatives at the plazas.

Turnpike facilities director Jack Christensen on Tuesday said HMSHost is contributing to the agency's “continuing effort to ‘go green,' ” noting it placed high-efficiency hand dryers and recycling containers in plazas.

HMSHost has rebuilt 12 service plazas since 2006. Work will finish on two more next month, leaving three plazas to be rebuilt.

HMSHost and Traffic Planning & Design Inc. are among more than a dozen companies named in the grand jury report that are being scrutinized by the state in an ethics review ordered this month by Gov. Tom Corbett.

“We expect it to be concluded within the next several months,” said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for Corbett's Office of General Counsel.

Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said the agency is conducting its own review. It sent memos to vendors detailing the agency's code of conduct and procurement policies, and is preparing to distribute conduct agreements for employees to sign. Turnpike CEO Mark Compton plans soon to fill out an advisory panel of government and business leaders to review the agency's policies, DeFebo said.

Johnson, who said the political solicitations never bothered him. said he welcomes the review. He said he has routinely made campaign contributions and will continue to do so.

He added that many campaign events are magnets for engineering firms such as his. Companies are trying not just to win contracts from government agencies. They also vie for contracts working under other firms.

“We're at every single event we can be at — every chamber of commerce, every planning commission meeting, every political event. The more you have your face in front of people, the more they remember you,” Johnson said as he traveled to a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game.

There, Johnson said he would spend the entire game going from one luxury suite to the next to introduce himself to potential clients. As always, he said, he would be wearing a shirt bearing his company's name.

“I'll probably only see five pitches,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a Republican, said he gives to candidates in both parties. He said he gave more money to former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, a Democrat from Brighton Heights, than the Republican Corbett in the last election because Onorato “happened to have the events that I needed to be at.”

Johnson said it used to seem “kind of weird” to contribute to opposing candidates. He recalled the 2002 gubernatorial race in which he attended a Rendell fundraiser one night and a fundraiser for former Attorney General Mike Fisher, an Upper St. Clair Republican, the next.

“I looked around (at the Fisher event) and the room was full of people I saw the night before,” Johnson said. “Everybody's doing this, I thought.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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