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Departing prosecutor in Pennsylvania Turnpike pay-to-play case does not blame lack of resources

| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 10:20 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The departing prosecutor in a turnpike corruption case is not blaming leadership in the Attorney General's Office for lack of support, despite being outgunned by defense resources in the courtroom.

“I don't know of any prosecutor in any jurisdiction that would tell you that she or he has sufficient resources,” Laurel Brandstetter told the Tribune-Review. “I believe that is part of working in the public sector. While I would have welcomed additional help, I believe the office allocated the resources it had available.”

The senior deputy attorney general from Stanton Heights, who announced her resignation last week, said in her first remarks since the announcement that she will clerk for Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Bill Ward while building a “risk management” practice for the Pittsburgh-based law firm Leech Tishman.

Her resignation caught some followers of the potentially explosive case off guard, especially with a hearing on key legal issues getting under way on Monday.

Brandstetter said she will handle the hearing but will leave at the end of the month. Trial in the “pay to play” case for alleged bid-rigging and influence peddling is scheduled for November.

Her new practice will involve cyber security, compliance and white-collar defense. It's aimed at preventing and mitigating violations of ethical, regulatory and governance standards, she said, for corporations, universities, municipalities and governments.

“As for why I am leaving, there is no one reason,” said Brandstetter, 39. “A series of opportunities presented themselves unexpectedly and quickly.”

She said the move enables her to spend more time with her son, 7.

“No more missing Little League games and school events,” Brandstetter said.

“Laurel is a talented attorney who has been dedicated to public service,” said Attorney General Kathleen Kane. “But we recognize that the needs of family come first, and we wish her the best of luck going forward.”

Though she was often by herself against eight seasoned defense lawyers, Brandstetter said, Kane's top managers did what they could to provide resources. She does not expect her departure to harm the case she helped to build.

Those awaiting trial include former Turnpike Chairman Mitchell Rubin of Philadelphia and former agency CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross. Former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow of Scranton is charged. They maintain their innocence.

Lawyers for the defense will seek to have charges dismissed at the hearing on Monday before Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis. Two minor defendants charged with counts unrelated to the overall alleged conspiracy pleaded guilty.

Brandstetter acknowledged a lack of experience in prosecuting public corruption, at least for now, in Kane's office.

“There is no question that the Attorney General's Office has fewer individuals with public corruption experience because many left to pursue other professional opportunities, which is normal when a new attorney general takes office,” Brandstetter said. Top prosecutors such as Frank Fina, who oversaw legislative corruption cases and the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse conviction, left for other offices. Fina and two former top state prosecutors are working for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.

“She is one of the finest prosecutors I have ever had the honor of working with,” Fina said of Brandstetter. “Her departure is a grave loss to the office and to the profession.”

Kane's victory in November 2012 marked the first time a woman and a Democrat held the office controlled by Republicans for more than three decades.

Brandstetter successfully prosecuted former Rep. Mike Veon. She won a conviction in 2012 against the former House Democratic whip for misusing a taxpayer-funded nonprofit. Before her time in the Attorney General's Office, she worked as a prosecutor in the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405.

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