Grand jury report: Turnpike vendors went along with pay-to-play scheme
Officially, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission had up-front ways of deciding which companies deserved turnpike contracts, but major contractors figured out the back-door method for persuading turnpike officials of their worthiness.
Once they figured campaign contributions to the right people unlocked the commission treasury, contractors turned the contributions into a cost of doing business.
"We look at it as basically it is a marketing expense in a way," the unnamed president of Traffic Planning & Design Inc. told the grand jury. "It still is something that we need to do in order to be able to pursue these type of projects and that is why I said it is marketing."
In conventional circles, marketing means promoting a product, not buying political influence, but with advocates for powerful senators such as Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow and Sen. Vince Fumo expecting the turnpike to produce cash for political campaigns, the definition got skewed, according to the grand jury report.
Mellow is one of eight people charged with corruption. He is accused of being behind a wide-ranging scheme to use turnpike business as "a cash cow" for political campaigns. Others include Joseph Brimmeier, the commission's former chief executive officer;
George Hatalowich, its former chief operating officer; and Mitchell Rubin, its former chairman.
An official of one contractor - Dennis Miller of Ciber Inc. - and an advocate for others - Jeffrey Suzenski - are also charged.
Dennis Fisher, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Granahan Kane, declined to comment on whether other contractors would be charged.
The scheme started at the top, according to the grand jury, with Brimmeier volunteering to be Mellow's "guy" at the commission. The Senate, led by Mellow, controlled the makeup of the commission.
"Bob Mellow, on the other hand, would call (commission officials) up and say, 'Hey, guys, I need $20,000 for this event. I have a picnic. I need $12,000. You're going to buy three foursomes for my golf outing and five signs and furthermore, I want you to put a dinner together for me with some of your vendors and I'll be there next Tuesday,'" Tony Lepore, the chief of staff to Mellow, told the grand jury.
Brimmeier and Hatalowich carried out the scheme by routinely putting the touch on vendors to contribute, which they did, giving tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats or Republicans who had a say in the way the commission operated.
A turnpike commission special assistant named David E. Zazworsky did some of the leg work, calling engineering firms on lists provided by Hatalowich. Zazworsky is not identified in the presentment, but is identifiable by comparing a list of political contributions - $62,150 worth between 2000 and 2009 - to campaign finance reports with the corresponding dates that have his name.
Contributions aren't supposed to be the way to get work at the commission. For example, on engineering contracts, turnpike policy was to advertise for proposals and have its engineering department review the proposals' strengths and weaknesses and recommend three to five based on expertise, staffing and existing turnpike workload.
That was the up-front way.
Lepore told the grand jury of "a behind-the-scenes" process that often involved Senate officials learning of work and calling up Brimmeier to tell him which vendor should get a contract.
"Generally, their requests were honored," the presentment states, though sometimes it took a while because contracts were split up among friends of the top Democratic and Republican senators, the governor's administration and commissioners, and one contract might not have enough to satisfy everyone.
Some contractors complained about having to contribute. In testimony before the grand jury, a turnpike engineering contract supervisor remembered fielding complaints from engineering firms that has been asked for contributions.
The vice president of Mackin Engineering complained to the turnpike's chief engineer about not getting a contract for the final design of a major highway in western Pennsylvania - the Mon-Fayette Expressway - after making contributions.
"We were told that if we made the right calls and we did the right things and we made whatever contributions we were asked to make, we were told we were getting that job and we didn't get it," the vice president told the commissioner engineer.
Another consultant submitted a proposal for a contract, thought he had a good chance to get it and then didn't.
When he asked Hatalowich why, he was told, "Maybe you should have given more to Sen. Fumo."
Faced with that kind of logic, many contractors went along.
The president of Orth-Rodgers & Associates Inc., also unnamed, came to fear that if he did not contribute to a particular fundraiser, turnpike decision makers might notice.
"I think you can look at the list of contributors and look at the list of turnpike contract holders and draw your own conclusions," he told the grand jury. "And I think that's the, you know, 800-pound gorilla that's in the room that no one ever wanted to talk about."
Between 2002 and 2010, officials of Orth-Rodgers contributed $103,700 to political candidates with "the most power and influence over the turnpike." Mellow actually got none of those contributions, according to the presentment. Between 2003 and 2006, they received a contract that eventually grew to more than $6 million.
A senior vice president at Buchart Horn Inc., knowing of the correlation between contributions and contracts, actually became upset when turnpike officials didn't let him know soon enough of a fundraiser for Gov. Ed Rendell and he wasn't invited to be part of the fundraiser's host committee.
"I surely would have helped if I had known certain individuals/firms were being granted favored nation status particularly since the invite is from the transportation community of Pennsylvania," he wrote in an August 2006 email.
In some cases, it wasn't only political contributions that greased the skids for companies.
PNC Bank spent more than $10,000 hosting Mellow at New York Yankees games and other events, sometimes taking him to Yankee Stadium in a limousine. PNC received more than $2.4 million in business since 2006.
Hatalowich got a $4,000 travel voucher, tickets to Pittsburgh Pirates games and use of a company apartment in Pittsburgh from McTish, Kunkle & Associates Inc., an engineering and construction management firm. One time, Hatalowich asked for and received Pirates tickets from McTish a week before the commission was supposed to decide on a contract for McTish.
When a McTish official told him the tickets were all ready to go, he responded, "Cool. Thanks, the (contract) award is on the agenda for June 6."
Gifts from Robert Pintar, a vice president at the traffic engineering firm CDM Smith, to Hatalowich were routine as were contributions to Fumo, who received $26,500 between 2005 and 2008, according to the presentment. Pintar would even ask Hatalowich if a fundraiser for which he received an invitation was somehow affiliated with the turnpike.
"We believe that making political donations enhanced our ability to get another contract or a larger contract," he told the grand jury, but even he knew it shouldn't be that way.
During his grand jury testimony, he was asked to contrast his experience working with the turnpike and with the state Department of Transportation.
PennDOT's process, he told the grand jury, is transparent and based 100 percent on a company's ability to perform the work, according to the presentment.