Former Pennsylvania Turnpike official to plead guilty
HARRISBURG — The first defendant among eight charged in the Pennsylvania Turnpike's pay-to-play scandal is scheduled to plead guilty on Monday, according to the attorney general's office.
Raymond Zajicek, 68, of Tarpon Springs, Fla., reached a plea agreement with state prosecutors, said Joe Peters, spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane. It isn't final until the judge accepts it.
Zajicek, who faces eight charges, including theft, is to appear in Common Pleas court in Dauphin County. His Pittsburgh attorney, David Berardinelli, declined to comment.
A legal expert said defendants who plead guilty in cases with multiple defendants frequently become witnesses for the prosecution. Such cooperation often results in a lighter sentence than those convicted at trial.
“Accused persons rarely plead guilty because they have ‘seen the light.' They plead guilty because they have ‘seen the deal,' ” said John Burkoff, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
Zajicek, a friend of ex-turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, retired as operations manager for fare collections with an annual salary of $110,000, a grand jury report said. His work history was “fraught with absenteeism,” but he received generous pay raises and was “protected from discipline” by Brimmeier, the report said.
Brimmeier of Ross is accused in what Kane described as a bid-rigging and influence-peddling scheme. His attorney, William Winning of Montgomery County, has said Brimmeier is innocent.
The grand jury report accused Zajicek of a wide range of illegal activity, including assault of a union official at a negotiating session.
Other grand jury findings:
• While under surveillance for four weeks, Zajicek worked less than four hours per day, on average, and spent much of his time running personal errands.
• Zajicek was “computer illiterate,” but other managers and qualified applicants were prevented from applying for his job.
• He took state vehicles for personal use.
• Zajicek once told his secretary to put him down for 16 hours of work while he was off on a two-day romantic getaway to a West Virginia spa. He took a woman he supervised.
Zajicek was not considered a major player in the alleged pay-to-play scheme, but witnesses told the grand jury he made political fundraising calls from work, directed political activity by agency staff and asked his secretary to make an invitation for a fundraiser for a gubernatorial candidate, the report says.
Prosecutors say turnpike employees raised campaign money for legislative and gubernatorial candidates, and accepted gifts from agency vendors, with contracts being steered toward companies that donated to campaigns and provided perks such as sporting event tickets, fishing trips, limo rides and expensive dinners.
Ex-Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow of Scranton and former Senate power broker Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia relayed requests for campaign money and jobs to turnpike officials, Mellow's former chief of staff Anthony Lepore testified last year. Fumo, who wasn't charged in the turnpike scandal, was convicted in a separate federal corruption case.
Other defendants in the turnpike case are: former Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin of Philadelphia; former Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, formerly of Uniontown; Melvin Shelton, a former agency employee from Philadelphia; Dennis Miller of Harrisburg, an agency consultant; and Jeffrey Suzenski of Pottstown, a consultant for an agency vendor.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.