End of turnpike commission should be in sight

One need only to pick up a newspaper to read rather frequently the allegations and past proven evidence of corruption at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

The latest, as reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review newspaper, is that the commission paid legal bills totaling $259,000 for top agency officials facing corruption charges.

It’s time for the state Legislature to dismantle the Turnpike Commission, and move its responsibilities into the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The Turnpike Commission is under state control, yet it seems to have always acted as a personal cash cow for certain people. And it has been a haven for political patronage by various state leaders over the years.

Just recently, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced a sweeping, 85-page grand jury presentment that detailed a pay-to-play culture that authorities allege existed for the last decade at the Turnpike Commission.

The grand jury charged eight people, including former Senate Democratic leader Robert J. Mellow, former Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, and onetime turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier, with crimes ranging from bribery to bid-rigging,

Mellow and others, the grand jury found, essentially used the agency as a personal cash machine, dangling the promise of lucrative turnpike contracts to raise campaign money or be lavished with meals, trips, or good seats at ballgames, the newspaper said. The report said contractors, some more reluctant than others, played along. Kane said the investigation is continuing.

Now comes the revelation that the agency paid bills covering legal costs of the four grand jury defendants. Prosecutors say campaign donations and gifts paved the way to contracts with the independent agency overseeing 552 miles of tolled highway.

With the commission facing a potential $8 billion debt, “it doesn’t appear to be appropriate use of public funds” to pay legal bills of people who were under investigation, former Auditor General Jack Wagner told the Tribune Review.

“The turnpike is drowning in debt,” said Wagner, who released an audit of the agency before leaving office in January.

Carl Defebo Jr., a turnpike spokesman, said the commission stopped paying outside lawyers’ fees once the Attorney General’s Office charged the former officials.

The Tribune Review said former agency Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich of Harrisburg ran up the largest legal tab: $132,902 paid to Welsh & Recker law firm in Philadelphia, according to figures released by the commission in response to a Right to Know Law request from the newspaper. There are many good, hardworking employees at the commission who deserve strong, effective leadership.

To the Legislature: Abolish the Turnpike Commission as a first step toward trying to restore public confidence in the administration and management of tolls roads.

Failure to do would be a sign of incompetence.

– The (Lock Haven) Express