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March 15, 2013

Eight charged in ‘pay-to-play’ turnpike scandal

HARRISBURG — Tickets to see Rod Stewart, Dancing with the Stars, Bryan Adams. And don’t forget the Yankees tickets — fifth row, right behind the dugout.

Witnesses testified before a secret grand jury that businesses seeking access to former state Sen. Bob Mellow were generous to the now-jailed lawmaker, particularly when it came to the Yankees tickets.

“Bob Mellow was the biggest Yankee fan you ever met in your entire life,” Mellow’s former chief of staff Anthony Lepore told the grand jury.

Mellow, now in federal prison for an unrelated conviction, was one of eight people charged Wednesday as part of a “pay-to-play” scandal centered on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Allegations in a grand jury finding released by Attorney General Kathleen Kane lay out the brazen manner that Mellow and former turnpike officials coerced companies into making political donations and gifts in order to obtain lucrative turnpike contracts.

Witnesses told the grand jury that the “pay-to-play” culture at the turnpike commission was “an 800-pound gorilla” but that many firms considered the expenditures a necessary part of their marketing budgets and made the payments to get the work.

Witnesses also told the grand jury that turnpike contracts were typically awarded by following a 60-40 rule — companies allied with the party in power got 60 percent of the work while those allied with the minority political party got 40 percent of the work.

Between 2002 and 2010, a company named Ortho-Rodgers gave more than $100,000 to a variety of political candidates.

It paid off in 2006 when there was a serious accident on the Turnpike and officials decided that a fog-detection system needed to be speedily installed. Rather than put the project out to bid, the turnpike gave the $6 million contract Ortho-Rodgers.

It was barely enough.

An employee for the company told the grand jury that as the company was trying to win another contract in 2009, they were waiting for the approval when she received a phone call from a turnpike financial consultant.

He wanted a $12,000 donation.

The unnamed witness told the grand jury: “The hair went up on the back of my neck because I thought, how coincidental is this? This man is calling for a contribution while we are waiting to hear that we’re going to get this contract.”

The same day the company received a faxed invitation for a political fundraiser benefiting the Philadelphia and Southeast Region Democratic State Senate Delegations. The witness testified that company officials decided to make a $5,000 donation, but they sent the contribution to the campaign office instead of the consultant who had phoned their office, in an attempt to diminish any appearance of impropriety. The consultant later called the company’s office to make sure they were planning to attend the fundraiser and thanked them for their contribution. The company then got the contract. The grand jury did not specify the value of that contract.

Employees at another firm, Buchart Horn, used a political action committee to give more than $19,000 to candidates the grand jury described as “exerting the most power and influence over the turnpike.”

The grand jury estimated the company was awarded more than $39 million in turnpike work, including a $24 million project at Valley Forge.

The grand jury documents include an email from a Buchart Horn executive complaining about being snubbed rather than provide an opportunity to be identified prominently at a fundraiser.

“I surely would have helped if I had known certain individuals/firms were being granted favored nation status.”

The grand jury noted that an executive with Ortho-Rodgers testified he was stunned by the email because of its explicit mention of the concept of ‘favored nation status,’ to describe the “pay-to-play” culture at the turnpike commission.

In a third example, the grand jury indicated that turnpike chief executive officer Joseph Brimmeier had steered work to a company called Community Networks because officials at that company had lobbied on behalf of the turnpike’s efforts to thwart a bid to privatize and lease the turnpike and to get tolling added to Interstate 80. For its efforts, Community Networks was awarded close to $2 million in work between Jan. 1, 2007, and Jan. 1, 2013.

State Sen. John Wozniak, the Democrat chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said the scandal will likely spur discussion during upcoming transportation funding negotiations about whether it makes sense to get rid of the turnpike commission entirely by merging it with the department of transportation.

Wozniak said he is not sure how far those discussions will go.

Both Wozniak and Sen. John Gordner, a Republican member of the Senate transportation committee, said that the scandal is focused on prior employees of the turnpike commission and reforms have already been put in place.

“No one who is currently working for the turnpike commission was indicted,” Gordner said.

Lawmakers said efforts to clean up the culture at the turnpike commission began in earnest two years ago when current Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch was appointed. The PennDOT secretary is one of the board members for the turnpike commission.

“(Schoch) began the process of weeding out folks. The turnpike commission of 2013 is not the same corrupt organization it was,” Gordner said. “There is a new team and a new way of doing things.”

Still, this latest revelation of alleged corruption in Harrisburg just serves to undermine the public confidence in those elected to state office, Wozniak said.

“We’re not all bad people,” Wozniak said.

He called the latest revelations “demoralizing.”

“We’re debating whether to impeach a Supreme Court justice (Joan Orie Melvin), we had the Philadelphia traffic court situation. Now this. What, are we in a race to the bottom with Washington?”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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