Did Pennsylvania Turnpike defendants do their jobs or break the law?

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 6/26/2013

A judge will decide whether defendants in an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving Pennsylvania Turnpike contracts were doing their jobs or broke the law. If District Justice William Wenner decides the latter, the case will proceed to trial against former state Sen. Bob Mellow, former Turnpike Commissioner Mitch Rubin, former CEO Joe Brimmeier and others.

A grand jury indicted eight men in March in a case that alleges bid-rigging for contracts in exchange for political contributions and personal gain.

Mellow and Brimmeier face nine counts each while Rubin faces three counts. Others charged in March were former Turnpike Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich of Harrisburg, Pa.; former Turnpike Information Officer Dennis Miller, also of Harrisburg; consultant and construction company owner Jeffrey Suzenski of Pottstown, Pa.; Melvin Shelton of Philadelphia; and Raymond Zajicek of Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Mellow’s former chief of staff Anthony Lepore, who testified with immunity, told the judge on Monday about relationships and exchanges involving politicians, the former turnpike leaders and vendors, according to various press reports from the hearings in Harrisburg.

On Tuesday, witnesses included turnpike staffers who viewed or helped decide contracts. The hearings are expected to last through the end of the week and then Wenner will decide if the case should proceed to trial.

At the time of the indictments, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the actions of the accused were “blatant” and said the public lost millions of dollars.

Current turnpike CEO Mark Compton said the actions of a few do not represent the hard-working staff and leadership that operate and maintain the toll road. Shortly after the indictments, Compton announced “additional reforms to operations” such as thorough reviews of all contracts for professional services.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, commonly referred to as America’s first superhighway, opened in 1940. The mainline runs 360 miles across the state with various extensions in the west and a 110-mile extension from Philadelphia to Scranton in the east.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was created in 1937 to oversee and maintain the roadway and administer tolls.

In 2007, the state legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell initiated Act 44, which forced the turnpike to fork over $450 million each year for 50 years to pay for other transportation projects in the state. That has led to toll increases every year on the turnpike since 2007.

Various lawmakers, business groups and organizations including OOIDA have called for Act 44 to be repealed. A transportation funding bill that currently resides in the state House Transportation Committee contains a provision that would phase out Act 44.

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