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Grand Jury: How Pay-to-Play Flourished on Pennsylvania Turnpike

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Despite the use of contract award procedures that in theory were objective, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission executives working with key political allies in the state's Democratic party routinely made selections of engineers and contractors based on gifts and political contributions, according to a state grand jury report released March 13.

Seated in 2009, the Harrisburg grand jury over the years consulted dozens of witnesses and documents. It charged former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chief Executive Joseph Brimmeier with violating the state ethics law. He was arraigned before a state judge in Harrisburg March 14 for allegedly playing a key role operating the long-running pay-to-play scheme at the commission.

The grand jury also charged the former Turnpike Chief Operating Officer and Contracts Administrator, George Hatalowich and former Turnpike Commission member Mitch Rubin with various crimes, including violations of state ethics codes for public officials.

Hatalowich, the grand jury charged,  “exerted tremendous influence over the internal processes at the Turnpike, resulting in the [awarding of] Turnpike contracts to those vendors favored by certain state officials.”

State Senator Robert Mellow, the Democratic Party leader from Lackawanna County, also allegedly had a leading role in the schemes, according to the grand jury.

Following his appointment by Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003, Brimmeier "quickly aligned himself with Senate Democrats and took orders directly from Senator Mellow" or his chief of staff, the grand jury wrote. Brimmeier followed Mellow's instructions on "the awarding of Turnpike contracts to particular vendors, and political fundraising efforts required of Turnpike personnel and Turnpike vendors."

List of Engineers

As part of one political fundraising effort at the Turnpike Commission during a past governor’s election and re-election campaign, Hatalowich allegedly used lists of turnpike engineers and contractors to generate invitations to political fundraisers and to contact vendors directly about their political participation. The lists included the total amount of the contract and how much the firm had been paid on the contract, the grand jury wrote.

Paying to play wasn’t always a guarantee that a company would get a job for which it submitted a bid.

One engineering firm, according to the grand jury testimony, complained that it had made all the right donations and political favors yet still was denied a contact for work on the final design phase of the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

"You know, we were supposed to get whatever assignment it was. We were told that if we made the right calls and did the right thing and made whatever contributions we were asked to make, we were told we were getting that job and we didn't get it," according to the grand jury's account of testimony from the firm's former vice president.

Although the commission had well-defined procurement procedures, the grand jury found a flourishing system of bid-rigging, improper influence and commercial bribery.

For example, until 2011, a Technical Review Committee consisting of the commission's CEO, COO, chief engineer and regional office directors governed engineering-firm selection. After advertising for engineering work, the Engineering Dept. reviewed letters of interest and the design or construction department reviewed and summarized the responses.

The review included assessments of strength and weaknesses and separate assessment byt he project janager and engineers about the firm's expertise, workload at the Turnpike Commission and staffing levels. "Typically, three to five preferences would be presented" to the Technical Review Committe and a discussion followed. Other key staff members were also present.

Despite the review procedures, the Senator Mellow's chief of staff, Anthony Lepore, told the grand jury that Senate officials would learn of the Turnpike contracts available and would call Brimmeier to tell him which firm they wanted to receive the contract.

A former Turnpike Commission chief engineer, according to the grand jury, testified that Brimmeier would bring up the names of favored firms "out of the blue," even though the firms were under consideration by the Technical Review Committee. Brimmeier and Hatalowich also approached the chief engineer before meetings to advocate for favored firms.

Phone Calls About a Change Order

The favoritism even contaminated the change orders requested on turnpike projects in 2009. According to the grand jury, an former commission engineer testified that when he hesitated to approve a change order for work by Orbital Engineering Inc., a Pittsburgh-based engineering company, the company's president allegedly told the engineer he would contact Brimmeier in order to secure the payment.

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