8 charged in Pa. Turnpike 'pay to play' case (PHOTOS)

In this June 26, 2007 file photo, then Sen. Robert Mellow, D-Lackawanna, addresses the Senate floor at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
March 13, 2013 3:40:54 PM PDT
A former state Senate power broker, three former top Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials and four others were charged Wednesday in an investigation that prosecutors said involved a "pay to play" scheme in which contract-hungry vendors gave gifts and political campaign contributions.

PHOTOS from Action News: WEBSITE and iPAD | WIRELESS

The group of former state officials used their extraordinary power over multimillion-dollar turnpike commission contracts both to enrich themselves and help sway political campaigns, Attorney General Kathleen Kane said. The largely secret investigation that came to light Wednesday took 44 months, dating back to 2009, and involved hundreds of witnesses, she said.

"Evidence of secret gifts of cash, travel and entertainment and the payment of substantial political contributions to public officials and political organizations by private turnpike vendors and their consultants demonstrates that the turnpike operates under a pay-to-play system that is illegal and corrupt," Kane said.

The public, she said, "has lost untold millions of dollars," and she added that the "greatest improper influence" involved the turnpike's procurement process.

The investigation is continuing, but is restricted by an eight-year statute of limitations, Kane said.

Retired state Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow, currently jailed in a federal prison in South Carolina on unrelated corruption charges, was accused of helping supporters and contributors get business from the turnpike and pressuring people at the turnpike to support him politically and raise campaign funds.

Mellow, 70, was charged with corrupt organizations, bribery, bid-rigging, conspiracy and other offenses. A telephone message left for a criminal defense lawyer who has represented him in the past was not immediately returned.

Also charged was former turnpike chief executive Joseph Brimmeier and former turnpike chairman Mitchell Rubin, who face charges similar to Mellow's. Brimmeier, 64, of Pittsburgh, declined to comment Wednesday and hung up on a reporter. A message was left at Rubin's home.

Miller, Rubin, Hatalowich and Suzenski were arraigned Wednesday and released on $100,000 unsecured bail. Shelton and Brimmeier are due in court Thursday. Arrangements were pending for Mellow, and Zajicek was expected to arrive shortly from Florida.

One of the commissioners, former Democratic state lawmaker Bill Lincoln, testified before the grand jury under a grant of immunity, and disclosed that he accepted gift certificates to a resort from an engineering firm and did not disclose them. He did not respond to a request for comment made through the turnpike press office.

Vendors who participated in the pay-to-play system were rewarded with multimillion-dollar contracts, authorities said.

"The reason they made these contributions and provided these gifts (is) because they knew that was the way they would get these contracts," said state police Commissioner Frank Noonan.

A key witness was Tony Lepore, chief of staff to Mellow and to the current Democratic floor leader, Sen. Jay Costa, of Allegheny County. The jury said Lepore testified under a grant of immunity.

"Lepore explained that Senate officials would learn of work becoming available at the turnpike and would call ... Brimmeier and tell him which firm, vendor or consultant they wanted to steer turnpike work to," the grand jury wrote in an 88-page presentment released with the charges. "Generally, their requests were honored."

The other defendants, who face various charges, were the turnpike's former chief operating officer George Hatalowich, 47; former turnpike employee Melvin Shelton, 81, of Philadelphia; and another turnpike ex-worker, Raymond Zajicek, 67, of Tarpon Springs, Fla. The final two defendants are turnpike vendor Dennis Miller, of Harrisburg, and Jeffrey Suzenski, a 63-year-old vendor consultant and registered lobbyist from Pottstown.

The grand jury issued a separate report for Zajicek, described as a close associate of Brimmeier and now retired from his $110,000-a-year job as fare collection operations manager. Most of the report dealt with alleged theft for performing personal errands on state time, but he also was accused of simple assault for a scuffle at a union meeting in 2010 that "erupted in violence."

On several occasions, the jury wrote, Zajicek borrowed his secretary's phone to make political fundraising calls during the work day. He also is accused of requesting turnpike employees to perform political activities.

A separate report also was issued for Shelton, who was charged with theft, perjury and other offenses. The grand jury presentment said he "held himself out to be a 'labor relations specialist'" but acted more like a Democratic party functionary.

"If a Democrat was terminated from the turnpike, Shelton would try to get them rehired," the jury wrote. They alleged he pressured officials by emphasizing his contacts with an unnamed Philadelphia congressman and with Rubin.

"Some of the individuals Shelton ordered be put back to work were fired repeatedly by the (turnpike) for theft, threatening customers, repeated shortages at toll booths and failure to report to work," the grand jury wrote.

When he was fired after investigators found evidence he was misusing his turnpike vehicle, they recovered from it a large amount of political campaign material, the jury said.

A telephone listing for Hatalowich in Harrisburg was not in service, and a number for Zajicek could not be located. Messages left for Shelton and Suzenski were not returned.

Miller's lawyer, Mark Sheppard, said his client has cooperated fully with the grand jury investigation and was surprised by the charges and will defend them court.

The turnpike figured tangentially in the federal criminal case against former state Sen. Vince Fumo, who was convicted of fraud and related charges in 2009. His co-defendant and aide, Ruth Arnao, was married to Rubin, the turnpike chairman. Arnao was also found guilty at that trial.

Fumo is not identified by name in the jury report, but as Senator No. 6 he is described as having a powerful influence over the turnpike. Political donations from turnpike vendors were directed to him and other senators of both parties who had sway over decisions related to the agency, the report said.

Gov. Ed Rendell had ousted Rubin in March 2009, citing what he called "overwhelming" evidence in trial testimony that Rubin had been paid $150,000 for a no-work job for the Appropriations Committee under Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat.

Rendell also was not named, but it's clear he is the person in the jury report described as Gubernatorial Candidate No. 1, for whom Brimmeier and Hatalowich were allegedly collecting political donations from vendors.

Rendell said he had not read the indictment and was unaware of any inappropriate activity, but he praised Brimmeier for making "significant improvements" in the turnpike's operation during his tenure.


Load Comments