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Last turnpike defendants plead guilty but avoid prison

Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, 3:56 p.m.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County board member Joe Brimmeier Friday February 1, 2013.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
The Port Authority of Allegheny County board member Joe Brimmeier Friday February 1, 2013. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Joe Brimmeier of Ross and the agency's former chief operating officer pleaded guilty Thursday to felony conflict of interest charges in a deal that will keep the men out of prison.

“Both of these defendants are now convicted felons and will have to carry that badge as a consequence of their actions,” said J.J. Abbott, spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office prosecuted what became known as the “pay-to-play” case.

The plea deal ends charges that Kane brought against eight former turnpike officials and vendors, and an ex-legislative leader in March 2013. A grand jury investigation began under Gov. Tom Corbett when he was attorney general, continued with his successor, Linda Kelly, and after Kane's election in 2012.

Dauphin County Judge Robert A. Lewis sentenced Brimmeier, 66, and former chief operating officer George Hatalowich, 49, of Harrisburg to 60 months of probation, $2,500 fines and 250 hours of community service each. Neither Brimmeier nor Hatalowich returned the Tribune-Review's calls.

The judge earlier dismissed charges against one suspect and gave two others probation without handing down verdicts. Three others avoided jail time by pleading guilty to misdemeanors.

“The commonwealth believes that these were reasonable resolutions of the cases, given all the circumstances and the facts,” Abbott said.

Brimmeier admitted that he “took official actions to influence the award of Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission contracts to Orth-Rodgers & Associates,” a Delaware County engineering firm. Brimmeier said he accepted “free hospitality” from the firm, along with money for the campaign of former Gov. Ed Rendell, who appointed Brimmeier to the turnpike's top post.

Brimmeier, who oversaw Rendell's Western Pennsylvania campaign operations in 2002, has been a fixture in Allegheny County politics for about four decades.

Hours before Kane announced the charges, he abruptly resigned from a seat on the Port Authority of Allegheny County's board. A month earlier, County Executive Rich Fitzgerald appeared poised to recommend Brimmeier to become the agency's CEO.

A grand jury presentment said Brimmeier recommended giving Orth-Rodgers a $5 million contract to design and install a fog detection system along the turnpike without seeking other bidders. During the next three years, he recommended giving the firm $1 million for extra work done on the project.

Brimmeier and other turnpike officials actively solicited campaign contributions from Orth-Rodgers, the presentment said, noting that the firm gave a combined $103,700 to “political candidates exerting the most power and influence over the turnpike” between 2002 and 2010.

“I think you can look at the list of contributors and look at the list of turnpike contract-holders, and draw your own conclusions. And I think that's the, you know, 800-pound gorilla that's in the room,” the unidentified president of Orth-Rodgers testified to the grand jury.

Stephen B. Bolt, former president of Orth-Rodgers, now part of the Philadelphia-based Burns Group, did not return a message seeking comment.

Hatalowich admitted accepting free hospitality and gifts from Allentown-based engineering firm McTish, Kunkle & Associates, and using his influence to steer contracts to the firm, which did not return a message from the Trib.

Among gifts, the grand jury said McTish gave Hatalowich a $4,000 travel voucher, free use of a Pittsburgh apartment and Pirates' club-level tickets on multiple occasions.

Turnpike spokesman Bill Capone did not comment on the convictions, but said: “Even before the grand jury presentment became public, we started to make changes here, related to professional service contracts and procurement. … We have tightened up procedures and are being as transparent as we can.”

Capone said he hopes that people “will recognize the fact that it's a different time and a different group of individuals leading our agency.”

Legal experts said time will tell.

“You hope the real benefit of this is not the retribution to people who were found guilty but a reform of the whole system, that this conduct is not repeated,” said Bruce Antkowiak, director of the criminology and law program at St. Vincent College in Unity.

Although Harrisburg corruption scandals in recent years have put more than 20 public officials behind bars, University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said, “We're not surprised when public officials are convicted and don't go to prison. But the fact that someone isn't going to prison doesn't mean they have gotten off lightly. … The hope is that anyone who is in government will feel deterred, realizing the moral stigma, the loss of income and loss of public acceptance that comes with it.”

Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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