The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

March 17, 2013

Turnpike tarred by allegations | Wozniak: 'Pay for play' scandal 'demoralizing'

JOHNSTOWN — We’ve always known that there is a toll to be paid for access to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

We just didn’t realize that it may have extended to companies working with the power brokers behind the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Eight former state officials – including former state Sen. Bob Mellow – have been charged in an alleged “pay to play” scheme.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane said that the public “has lost untold millions of dollars” in inflated contracts, according to a story by The Associated Press.

If true, the charges wouldn’t explain the $8 billion debt that the turnpike commission is saddled with, but they would reveal plenty about the people responsible for running the toll road. It also would be further evidence of why the public’s trust in government figures has eroded more than the blacktop on our salt-covered roads.

The picture painted by Kane was not a pretty one. In addition to Mellow, 70, who is currently imprisoned in South Carolina on unrelated corruption charges, nine others were charged. They are: Former turnpike chief executive Joseph Brimmeier, 64; former turnpike chairman Mitchell Rubin, 61; former chief operating officer George Hatalowich, 47; former turnpike employee Melvin Shelton, 81; former turnpike employee Raymond Zajicek, 67; Dennis Miller, 51, a former vice president of information technology firm Ciber; and vendor consultant and registered lobbyist Jeffrey Suzenski, 63.

Witnesses told a grand jury that companies considered the pay to play culture, which included such things as tickets to see Rod Stewart, “Dancing With the Stars” and the New York Yankees – were part of the cost of doing business. And that those investments could pay off handsomely, as it reportedly did for Ortho-Rodgers, a company that got a $6 million contract from the commission in 2006. Ortho-Rodgers donated more than $100,000 to a variety of political candidates between 2002 and 2010, the grand jury found.

That’s just one of the examples the grand jury cited. Collectively, they’re enough to make us more than a little car sick.

The grand jury said that turnpike vendors donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to political figures, including former state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, who is in federal prison on unrelated charges, and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

While neither Fumo nor Rendell has been linked to any wrongdoing in the case, the turnpike scandal can’t help but rattle the public’s confidence in state political figures and those who are supposed to be serving us.

“We’re not all bad people,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.

But Wozniak, who is the Democratic chairman of the Senate transportation committee, told CNHI reporter John Finnerty that the turnpike scandal, in addition to others plaguing Pennsylvania politics, are “demoralizing.”

“We’re debating whether to impeach a Supreme Court justice (Joan Orie Melvin), we had the Philadelphia traffic court situation. Now this. What, are we in a race to the bottom with Washington?”

If the turnpike charges are any indication, the passing lane is open and the commonwealth is shifting gears.

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