The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 24, 2013

Pa. staffer opens turnpike-case testimony

Mark Scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A high-ranking legislative employee testified Monday about the involvement of state senators in hiring and contracting practices at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, as a judge must decide whether there is enough evidence to send the case to trial.

Senate Democratic chief of staff Tony Lepore was the only witness during the first day of what is expected to be a weeklong preliminary hearing in the case that alleges corruption in Pennsylvania Turnpike business.

Lepore said Senate Democrats would call officials at the turnpike to inform them of political fundraising events and ask them to sell thousands of dollars in tickets. The Senate votes to confirm turnpike commissioners but also has engaged in a regular give-and-take between the two organizations, including for hiring, he said.

“There’s always a minority party representation on that board and a majority party representation on that board,” he said. “And one party was not going to be shut out.”

Lepore also described an effort by a PNC Bank vice president in northeastern Pennsylvania to get more financing business from the turnpike. The executive, he said, was a close friend of Lepore’s then-boss, defendant Bob Mellow.

Mellow, the former Democratic floor leader from Lackawanna County, is serving time at a federal prison in South Carolina for an unrelated public corruption conviction. Mellow was not in court Monday, but his lawyers were present.

Five other defendants also were in the downtown Harrisburg courtroom: Joe Brimmeier, the turnpike’s former chief executive; Mitchell Rubin, the turnpike’s former chairman; George Hatalowich, the turnpike’s former chief operating officer; and former vendors Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski.

All six are accused of restricted activities, and all but Suzenski also are charged with bid-rigging and conspiracy. Mellow, Rubin, Brimmeier and Hatalowich also are charged with corrupt organizations and bribery.

Lepore, testifying under a grant of immunity, said Mellow made it clear to him that he very much wanted PNC to get turnpike work.

“He pushed very hard to get it done. Pushed me, so I made many calls,” Lepore said, describing those calls as appropriate constituent work.

Monday’s proceedings wrapped up earlier than expected after District Judge William Wenner let the attorney general’s office provide him with written transcripts of grand jury testimony, rather than having it read into the record.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.