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PA Turnpike

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    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

     

     

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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

     

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    turnpike logoThe Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, the beleaguered agency targeted by a state corruption probe, was operating without a full-time chief compliance officer for three months at the start of the summer.

    Inspector General Ray Morrow had been pulling double-duty as IG and interim Chief Compliance Officer for a few months after David Gentile, the commission’s first CCO, resigned in early April. That ended July 11 when commissioners promoted Morrow as the new CCO. The commission did not publicly announce Morrow’s promotion or that he was stepping in on an interim basis in April.

    “On a day-to-day basis I was busy,” Morrow said of his time performing both duties, “but it was a lot of fun and it was a great learning experience.” He credited Gentile who “set a very good course and put together a great team.”

    It’s been more than a year since Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced the result of an investigation into an alleged bribery and bid-rigging scheme involving former Turnpike officials and a former top Senate Democrat. Kane said the investigation exposed a “pay to play” scheme where political contributions equaled millions of dollars in Turnpike contracts.

    The Office of Attorney General in March 2013 announced criminal charges against former Sen. Bob Mellow, who once served as the top Senate official, former Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, former Turnpike chairman Mitchell Rubin, former Turnpike COO George Hatalowich, and other agency employees, vendors and a consultant.

    A Dauphin County judge will hear arguments on pre-trial motions Aug. 18 and the trial is set to start Nov. 17.

    The commission in January hired Morrow, a 20-year veteran of the FBI who was most recently involved in corporate investigations, as Inspector General to root out fraud, theft and waste by monitoring employee behavior and identifying and dealing with misconduct. He also focused on issues involving contractors or consultants hired by the commission.

    When Morrow received the promotion, the commission eliminated the Inspector General position, but created an advisory position within the Office of Compliance’s umbrella to cover the daily duties, Morrow said. The commission said it’s a cost-saving measure and improves efficiency.

    During a brief phone interview Friday, Morrow described his office as “a sort of triage” of what comes to them in the form of tips, anonymous or not, which are then referred to particular sections to look into.

    “Every allegation is tracked, investigated and monitored,” Morrow said, noting not every allegation is criminal and most deal with compliance issues.

    “I found [since he started in January] that we have some outstanding employees, and an organization that is moving in the right direction since what was announced last March,” said Morrow, who as CCO oversees daily audits of the toll revenue-system and other compliance audits, the contracting process, and other functions to clean up the commission’s image. “I have not seen anything that will make me feel any different than what I just stated.”

    Because he deals mostly with matters of personnel, his reports to the commissioners aren’t publicly available.

    “The Compliance Department’s investigative reports and audits are confidential and not accessible pursuant to the Right-to-Know Law,” Morrow said in a subsequent email. “If, however, the Compliance Department finds evidence of a crime or criminal activity, the Commission will refer the matter to the appropriate law-enforcement agency for its review.”

    Another reform effort from the Turnpike in the aftermath of Kane’s announcement was a three-person advisory committee to review the commission’s business practices and policies. Their report is expected this fall.

    –Kevin Zwick, Capitolwire