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Ex-turnpike CEO, others due in court in '60-40' scandal

| Sunday, June 23, 2013, 10:40 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch archive
Former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, seen in a file photo from 2013, is collecting a $43,027 annual state pension following his guilty plea to a conflict of interest charge in November. Despite the plea, Brimmeier, 66, of Ross, insists he is innocent.

HARRISBURG — A lawyer intends to prove that political corruption charges against former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier are “baseless and without fact” in a preliminary hearing that will begin on Monday.

The state Attorney General's Office in March charged Brimmeier, 65, of Ross and seven others as part of a multimillion-dollar “pay-to-play” scheme outlined by a grand jury that concluded the Turnpike Commission awarded contracts to companies donating to political campaigns and providing officials with gifts and travel. The hearing for six of the eight defendants could last five days.

“We're looking forward to the start of the preliminary hearing,” said William Winning, a Philadelphia attorney representing Brimmeier. “This is the first step in the process of establishing Joe Brimmeier's total innocence on all of the charges filed against him.”

This is the latest round of Pennsylvania corruption cases since 2009 that sent eight former legislative leaders to prison at the same time and placed an ex-Supreme Court justice under house arrest for felony convictions.

Brimmeier, a longtime fixture in Allegheny County Democratic politics, flatly denies the charges.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane based the charges on a three-year grand jury investigation that claimed defendants used the turnpike to “line their pockets and influence elections.”

Investigators found the agency operated under the influence of former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow and “Senator No. 6,” whom the grand jury report makes clear is former power broker Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat imprisoned on separate corruption charges.

Tony Lepore, Mellow's top staffer, told the grand jury that Brimmeier “took orders” from Mellow or Lepore to award contracts to particular vendors and require fundraising by turnpike staff and vendors.

Turnpike business, from engineering to professional services, was decided on a “60-40 rule.” Most contracts went to the party in power, based primarily on the governor's party affiliation.

Brimmeier was former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's appointee, and Brimmeier played a key role in Rendell's 2002 campaign, directing events in Western Pennsylvania. The report does not accuse Rendell of wrongdoing. The Senate confirms Turnpike Commission members.

Brimmeier worked for Allegheny County government for 20 years in various capacities. He was former chief of staff to ex-U.S. Rep. Ron Klink.

On the eve of Kane's announcement of the charges, Brimmeier resigned from a seat on the board of Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Co-defendants include Mellow, 70, of Scranton, who is serving a federal sentence on unrelated corruption charges; former Turnpike Chairman Mitchell Rubin, 61, of Philadelphia; George Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg, the turnpike's former chief operating officer; and Dennis Miller, 51, a turnpike vendor.

Mellow waived his right to appear, but his attorney intends to contest the charges at the hearing before District Judge William Wenner in Dauphin County.

Former turnpike employee Raymond Zajicek, 67, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., waived his hearing. Another former employee, Melvin Shelton, 81, of Philadelphia, likely will have his hearing in September.

Most attorneys for those facing the hearing declined comment. Some could not be reached.

The allegation that turnpike officials awarded contracts based on contributions or gifts is “utterly false,” said William Fetterhoff, a Harrisburg attorney representing Hatalowich. Following the testimony, “Mr. Hatalowich's innocence will be clear,” Fetterhoff said.

The prosecution may call up to 28 witnesses.

A preliminary hearing establishes whether there is “sufficient evidence to sustain each of the charges,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at St. Vincent College. The district judge decides whether a defendant should face trial in Common Pleas Court.

In general, Antkowiak said, it's difficult to get charges dismissed at a preliminary hearing.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com. Josh Fatzwick, an intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, contributed.

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