IG uncovers wrongdoing by Ohio turnpike brass, director resigns

| 8/9/2002

Ohio Turnpike Commission (OTC) brass wrongly accepted gifts and favors from companies and law firms doing business with the turnpike, according to the Aug. 6 investigation report from the Ohio Inspector. As a result of a report from IG Thomas Charles and the Ohio Ethics Commission (OEC), OTC Director Gino Zomparelli resigned Thursday, according to The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

Later in the day, OTC Chairman Tim Greenwood received and accepted Zomparelli's resignation. The chairman said he will take up the matter of how to proceed Monday when the Turnpike's full board meets. In the letter, Zomparelli said state officials had unfairly portrayed his performance.

The investigation found reasonable cause to believe wrongdoing occurred when Zomparelli and other turnpike staff, including General Counsel Thomas Amato and Deputy Director Daniel Castrigano, accepted a significant number of gratuities, over an extended period of time, from companies and law firms doing business with the turnpike. These gratuities included free golf outings, tickets to sporting events, prestige seating at sporting events, meals, entertainment tickets and miscellaneous gifts.

The OEC also found reasonable cause to believe wrongdoing occurred when a former turnpike commission vice chairman, Earl Williams, solicited from Zomparelli a job for his son. Zomparelli subsequently hired the commissioner's son, prior to the end of Williams' term.

Additionally, the investigation identified wrongdoing when Patrick Patton, the turnpike legislative liaison, spent a total of 155 working days, over a 40-month period of time, dealing with Ohio Police & Fire pension system business, as a pension board member, while on the turnpike's payroll. Patton also collected gas reimbursements from the Ohio Police & Fire pension fund while at the same time driving his assigned turnpike car and utilizing fuel purchased by the turnpike.

The IG's office, governor's office and the ethics commission received an anonymous complaint alleging misconduct by Zomparelli. They later received an anonymous allegation against Patton. Due to the nature of the issues involved in these allegations, a joint investigation was initiated with the ethics commission. Many interviews were conducted and numerous documents were subpoenaed and reviewed during the course of the investigation. The issues set forth in these allegations were consolidated into six areas of concern involving various incidents of misconduct and mismanagement.

The OEC has offered seven recommendations to the Ohio Turnpike Commission and has requested they respond within 60 days. Due to the nature of their findings, they are forwarding a copy of the report to the appropriate prosecuting attorneys for review and possible criminal prosecution.

The report concluded: "Accepting gratuities seems to have become a part of the culture of the OTC ... A cavalier attitude regarding the acceptance of gratuities seems to permeate at the OTC and extends from the employees to administrative officials and commissioners."
--Rene Tankersley, feature editor