Lawyers for Mellow, former Turnpike officials argue for dismissal of alleged ‘pay to play’ charges

    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    Defense attorneys took turns trying to poke holes in the state’s criminal case against a former Senate leader, three former Turnpike officials, a vendor and a consultant during a pre-trial hearing Monday on an alleged Turnpike corruption scandal.

    They argued the state’s case is “fundamentally flawed” and should not move forward to a jury trial scheduled for mid-November in Dauphin County court.

    The catchphrase of the day-long hearing was “quid pro quo” and defense attorneys aimed to prove the state’s case lacked this critical element in proving how thousands of dollars in political contributions directly led to millions of dollars in Turnpike contracts.

    “It is very easy to take contributions in one column and contractors in another and draw a line,” said defense lawyer William Fetterhoff, who pointed to contributions received by Corbett from firms with PennDOT contracts.

    But, Fetteroff said, the attorney general needs to show the contributions influenced official action.

    Former Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow, former Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, former Turnpike commissioner Mitchell Rubin, and former Turnpike COO George Hatalowich face various charges including bribery, bid-rigging, conflict of interest and corruption organization. Their lawyers are seeking dismissal of charges, or at least separate trials, while all but one – Rubin – argued for a speedy trial on the charges resulting from an investigation started under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett.

    At one point, a defense lawyer threw the term “quid pro quo” back at the attorney general’s office, citing a press release that said an aborted sting operation, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, “failed to establish the critical criminal element of ‘quid pro quo’ or cash payments directly in exchange for official action.”

    Vendor Dennis Miller and vendor consultant Jeffrey Suzenski face lesser charges. They also are seeking a dismissal and, at the very least, trials separate from the higher-profile defendants. Mark Sheppard, Miller’s lawyer, said his client’s contributions “weren’t enough” to get him out of the case, claiming the investigation let larger contributors off the hook for political reasons. Both Sheppard and Suzenski lawyer Michael Engle asked for charges to be dismissed because they were selectively prosecuted.

    Philadelphia lawyer David Shapiro said his client, Rubin, who acted as a member of the commission and eventually the commission’s chairman, had a “good faith belief” that as long as there was no quid pro quo, he did not have a criminal intent.

    Other lawyers said their clients did not agree with Shapiro’s argument – Briar said Shapiro’s argument was hostile to the other defendants, who are calling for separate trials to avoid a confused jury if the charges are not dropped.

    One of the requests from former Mellow’s lawyers, Dan Brier and Sal Cognetti, was a motion to dismiss on claims of double jeopardy. Assistant U.S. Attorney Francis Sempa on Monday said he handed over to state investigators FBI and IRS files stemming from a federal investigation into Mellow prior to state charges being announced against the former top Senate Democrat. Mellow’s lawyers claim federal investigators encouraged the state to file additional charges against him. Sempa said he did not discuss any ongoing state investigation involving Mellow when he met with state investigators.

    Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis suggested Mellow’s lawyers faced an uphill climb to show the charges were the same, to which Briar responded that it’s not the same offense or charge but the same conduct.

    Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter would not comment after Monday’s hearing, a spokesman said. She is set to argue the state’s case on the pre-trial motions Tuesday at 10 a.m. in Dauphin County Court.

    Recent newspaper reports have indicated Brandstetter has submitted her resignation from the Office of Attorney General, and will be leaving the OAG by the end of the month. The OAG has not offered any comment regarding the Brandstetter situation, other than to say the OAG “will be ready to proceed” at trial.

    Five of the defendants were in the courtroom Monday. Mellow did not attend due to health reasons, Cognetti said.
    –Kevin Zwick, Capitolwire