AG’s office argues for jury trial in Turnpike corruption case

AG’s office argues for jury trial in Turnpike corruption case

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pay to play 2The state’s case in an alleged bid-rigging and bribery scheme at the Turnpike Commission is one of “first impression,” according to the Office of Attorney General, which said the court could “break new legal ground.”

Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter said the case, given that it’s focused on commercial bribery and not a different part of the bribery statutes, “can be based upon circumstantial evidence and it can be based upon a pattern of conduct,” not the “neat, tidy quid pro quo” scenario presented in court by defense attorneys on Monday.

“There need not be an overt discussion,” Brandstetter said.
William Winning, a defense lawyer for former Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, said “an appearance is not a substitute for evidence in a courtroom where six defendants are accused of serious charges.”

“There’s a cloud…an appearance, judge,” he said.

William Fetterhoff, lawyer for former Turnpike COO George Hatalowich, said unlike other public corruption cases like “Bonusgate” and “Computergate,” which in their core said public money could not be used for political purposes, “the core of the Turnpike case has been elusive.”

He said it has never been unlawful for public employees to solicit campaign contributions from vendors working or seeking work from their agency.

“Maybe that should be against the law,” Fetterhoff said, but noted a criminal prosecution is not the proper place to establish a bright legal line “at the expense of the lives of the defendants.”

Instead, he suggested changing the law should be left to the Legislature.

Lawyers for former Senate Democratic Leader Bob Mellow, former Turnpike chairman Mitchell Rubin, Brimmeier, Hatalowich, vendor Dennis Miller and vendor consultant Jeffrey Suzenski are making a last-ditch attempt to have charges against them dropped before a mid-November jury trial in Dauphin County court.

The charges stem from a three-and-a-half year grand jury investigation that found they were allegedly involved in a “pay to play” scheme where political contributions resulted in millions of dollars-worth of Turnpike contracts for certain contributors.

On the issue of bribery, Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis questioned Brandstetter about her assertions that fund-raising invitations became, in effect, directives by Brimmeier, Hatalowich and former Turnpike chairman Mitchell Rubin to vendors to contribute in order to be considered for state contracts.

Reacting to Brandstetter stating that one contractor said “he believed that the contributions would improve the likelihood of getting a contract with the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” Lewis asked: “Wouldn’t any corporation, contracting firm, whatever the case may be, come to that same conclusion?”

Lewis later continued: “Where are you drawing the line – if I’m starting a contracting company, and I was interested in getting some work on the Turnpike … and I wanted to get my company noticed, would I improve my chance if I show up at some of these events?

“It has nothing to do with my competence as a contractor, I just want to get my name known, to get my company to be known – I want people to notice me; how else will they [Turnpike officials] notice me out of 25 applications for a project? What’s going to make mine stand out?”

Brandstetter responded that in Lewis’ scenario, the company or its owner is making a choice to contribute, not, she argued, Turnpike officials calling a company and suggesting the owner participate in or contribute to a Turnpike-hosted event.

“That’s the distinction … what makes it an issue – it demonstrates they are no longer acting without influence,” argued Brandstetter. She said the problem occurs when “you have people in positions of public trust exerting influence over those they’re doing business with.”

The commonwealth also argues that Mellow, as Senate leader, used his power and the Senate’s institutional control of the Turnpike to steer business and solicit contributions. His lawyers are asking charges against him be dismissed under “double jeopardy” claims that the state only charged Mellow after he pled guilty to one federal count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

Dan Brier, one of Mellow’s lawyers, claimed state and federal prosecutors colluded in a “malicious, vindictive, harassing” attempt to charge Mellow for “substantially the same” conduct. Brandstetter said the federal charges were on the misuse of Mellow’s staff in his Lackawanna County Senate office, not related to the Turnpike.
Judge Lewis said he would make a decision “as soon as possible.”

–Kevin Zwick & Chris Comisac, Capitolwire