Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County- At the Pennsylvania Turnpike
Commission, it was political action first. Bids were allegedly rigged. Work was
reportedly steered to bidders with the highest aspirations to buttress lofty
political campaigns. Vendors and contractors showered the politically
entrenched with gifts, according to the attorney general.
Contractors were pressured to cut checks for a slate of political candidates in exchange for work with the turnpike, according to a grand jury presentment made public on Wednesday.
Ex-Senator Bob Mellow's hand was firmly over alleged pay-to-play action at the turnpike. Thousands in donations were funneled to The Friends of Bob Mellow.
"You've all heard rumors about the turnpike for years," said Commissioner Frank Noonan of the Pennsylvania State Police to members of the media following a news conference on Wednesday.
Investigators said it was hard to determine when the work of allegedly financing political campaigns at the turnpike began. Prosecutors said they were
bound by a statute of limitations of eight years.
Is it coincidence that a ride on the Pa. Turnpike is practically the costliest in the nation? Or could it have been the result of the alleged internal culture of politicians strong-arming contractors through the turnpike's bosses to bankroll their political campaigns?
Connecting the dots in the grand jury presentment revealed a lion's share of the political strong-arming and fundraising benefited the campaigns of former Governor Ed Rendell (D) and ex-Senator Vincent Fumo. In jail on unrelated corruption charges, Eyewitness News was unsuccessful in reaching Fumo for comment. Rendell denied knowledge in published reports of any impropriety at the turnpike.
Meanwhile, tolls have continued to skyrocket. The turnpike is one of the most expensive stretches of roadway in the country.
Mellow (D), Mitchell Rubin, an ex-turnpike commissioner, Joseph Brimmerier and
George Hatalowich, ex-turnpike executives, Melvin Shelton and Raymond Zajicek,
ex-employees and Dennis Miller, a vendor, and Jeffrey Suzenski, a consultant,
are all charged in the turnpike's webbed pay-to-play scheme.
A day after the presentment was made public, the I-Team requested comment from area state lawmakers about the suspected internal failures that directly contributed to the scheme.
"The recent indictments continue to erode the public's confidence in government," said Senator JohnYudichak (D-16) in a statement to Eyewitness News. "As legislators, we must strive for greater transparency, accountability and public openness to government at all levels."
Yudichak went a step further and struck up talk of what Harrisburg can do to attempt to stem the tide of public corruption.
"In an effort to restore public confidence in their government, I support a bipartisan effort to establish a Public Integrity Commission that would put more resources, more accountability and more authority into the hands of those who can better enforce ethics laws. The people of Pennsylvania demand and deserve greater accountability."
Senator John Blake (D-22), in a phone interview, said he
believed the wheels of justice have already started turning and this is just
the first outcome. "It's very discouraging and disappointing," he
said. "There may have been failures in the accountability process."
A chief of staff for Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) released a statement on Wednesday to Eyewitness News: "These are very serious charges that will be pursued through the criminal justice system. My focus is on restoring public confidence in state government. We need to take a careful look at the operations of the PTC (Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission) and determine what legislative remedies are necessary."
A spokesman for Senator David Argall emailed the following comment to the I-Team:
"This is an issue that makes
taxpayers very disappointed with their government, and rightfully so. If the
alleged crimes are true, this is a complete failure in leadership in Governor
Rendell's choice to manage the Turnpike."
Of the most charged comments
provided by any lawmaker came from Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-116).
In a phone interview with Eyewitness
News, Toohil railed against Mellow, saying: "It's disgusting. It's Bob Mellow
again. It goes to show you absolute power corrupts absolutely. In order to
restore the public trust, public officials like Mellow need to be made an
Toohil called for legislative efforts
to begin examining merging the turnpike commission with PennDOT. "This must be
so corrupted down the core," she said of the turnpike commission.
Eyewitness News has learned the
turnpike now has a compliance officer responsible for insulating the operations
of the commission from the gravitational pull of politics.
Detailed messages seeking comment from Senator John Gornder (R-27), Reps. Jerry Mullery (D-119), Mike Carroll (D-118) and Phyllis Mundy (D-120) were not returned. A chief of staff for Rep. Mario Scavello (R-176) said he would have no comment on the grand jury presentment.