Former state senator, PA Turnpike officials charged in 'pay to play' scheme

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | Thursday, March 14, 2013

Former Pennsylvania Turnpike officials including Commissioner Mitchell Rubin and CEO Joseph Brimmeier are facing criminal charges stemming from a lengthy grand jury investigation, Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane announced Wednesday, March 13. Kane also announced charges against former state Sen. Robert Mellow.

Kane said Rubin, Brimmeier, Mellow and five others, including two contractors who made millions, face a variety of offenses.

A posting on Kane’s website states the following: “The grand jury heard 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. … The charges show those who ‘pay to play’ have sought and been rewarded with multimillion dollar Turnpike contracts. As a result, the public has lost millions of dollars.”

Kane called the grand jury findings troubling.

“These were blatant actions,” she stated. “It was almost as though they had no fear of being caught. That kind of behavior has to stop.”

Kane is pressing nine counts against Mellow, which included commercial bribery, unlawful bid-rigging, and failure to file expense accounts.

According to documents, Mellow used his tenure as Democratic floor speaker to solicit contributions in exchange for securing turnpike work contracts. The grand jury also said Mellow directed turnpike staff to solicit contributions on his behalf.

Rubin, elected chairman of the turnpike in 2003, faces three counts of bid-rigging and six other counts including commercial bribery. Rubin once worked for former state Sen. Vincent Fumo, who was charged with corruption and sentenced to 55 months in prison in 2009. Rubin and his wife, Ruth Arnao, faced separate charges connected to the Fumo trial for “no work” contracts. Rubin took leave in 2006 and was later let go by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Brimmeier, who was CEO of the turnpike from 2003 through 2010, was charged with nine counts in total including bid-rigging and restricted activities.

Kane also announced charges against former Turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg, PA; former Turnpike Information Officer Dennis Miller, 51, also of Harrisburg; consultant and construction company owner Jeffrey Suzenski, 63, of Pottstown, PA; Melvin Shelton, 81, of Philadelphia; and Raymond Zajicek, 67, of Tarpon Springs, FL.

Current Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark P. Compton issued a statement on the charges against his predecessors.

“We understand how important it is to maintain the public’s trust. And certainly, we’re troubled by today’s news from Attorney General Kane’s office,” Compton stated.

“If charges against former Turnpike employees are indeed proven, we certainly cannot – and will not – defend that. But I can say that these actions definitely don’t represent the hard-working men and women who keep our road open and safe for customers. In the time that I’ve been here, the Turnpike that I have experienced firsthand is quite different than the one that I’ve heard about in media reports.”

Compton posted a list of reforms that have taken place during the past two years to improve operations and restore trust. The list includes a more transparent contracting process and the hiring of a former FBI agent.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike has often been referred to as America’s first superhighway, opening in 1940.

Since 2007, tolls have increased each year as part of a state law that turned the turnpike into a cash cow to pay for other transportation projects. The much ballyhooed Act 44 of 2007 requires the turnpike to pay $450 million each year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to pay for mass transit and other projects.

Truckers fought against Act 44 and continue to call for its repeal. The law initially called for Interstate 80 to be converted to a toll road, but public outcry and a rejection from the Federal Highway Administration kept I-80 toll-free.

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