Fundraising Was Dogged, Turnpike Grand Jury Told
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Sometimes the invitation for an engineering firm's executive to attend a political fundraiser first signaled the alleged “pay to play” culture that prosecutors say pervaded the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. There might even have been a personal note inside from a turnpike commission official.
That was when some executives of contract-hungry companies that did business with commission began to realize that their continued contract success could hinge on their participation in the fundraisers, a grand jury report released Wednesday said.
The report accompanied charges against a former state senator, three former top Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials and two businessmen stemming from what prosecutors say was a long- running scheme in which businessmen gave lavish gifts and political campaign contributions to improve their chances of landing lucrative contracts.
“I think you can look at the list of contributors and look at the list of turnpike contract holders and draw your own conclusions,” the unnamed president of a suburban Philadelphia firm that had received a contract to design and install a fog detection system along the turnpike told grand jurors. “And I think that's the, you know, 800-pound gorilla that's in the room that no one ever wanted to talk about.”
In 2004, the former turnpike chief executive officer, Joseph Brimmeier, asked a longtime commission employee to call turnpike consultants to find out if they had received invitations to a fundraiser for the governor, who was Democrat Ed Rendell at the time, and if they planned to attend, the grand jury report said. The employee agreed and made at least 25 phone calls, the grand jury said.
When he made the phone calls, the employee told the consultants that he was calling on Brimmeier's behalf, the grand jury said.
The invitation and phone calls were just one example of turnpike vendors, many of them engineering firms, who were solicited in phone calls from turnpike employees or by mailed invitations that occasionally included a personalized note, according to the grand jury.
One such note said a 2010 gubernatorial candidate – presumably Democrat Dan Onorato – “supports transportation infrastructure. So do we. See you there. Bill Lincoln, Joe Brimmeier, and George Hatalowich.”
Lincoln, a turnpike commissioner originally nominated by Rendell, testified to the grand jury under a grant of immunity. Brimmeier and Hatalowich, the former turnpike chief operating officer, are each facing charges in the case.
Hatalowich's lawyer, Catherine Recker, said Thursday that Hatalowich “disputes both the factual allegations and legal conclusions” in the grand jury report and criminal complaint.
On Thursday, Brimmeier appeared with his lawyer before a district judge in suburban Harrisburg to hear the charges against him. Brimmeier declined comment, but his lawyer, William Winning, said the grand jury report is a one- sided and slanted view of the turnpike commission's operation.
“When the facts come out, which will represent a whole different side of the story ... I am confident he will be completely exonerated from the charges and the allegations that are in the complaint,” Winning told reporters.
The grand jury report also said one engineering firm helped with the invitations for the fundraiser, assembling them in its offices. Before it was finished, Brimmeier dropped off personalized blue cards to be included in the invitations. To prepare for it, Hatalowich made phone calls using the firm's office in suburban Harrisburg to generate additional support, the grand jury said, citing telephone records.
The vice president of another engineering firm recalled meeting commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin to introduce the firm and discuss upcoming projects. During the meeting, Rubin indicated that the firm would receive invitations to political fundraisers and “advised that they needed to watch out for those,” the grand jury said.
Meanwhile, Hatalowich kept lists of all firms doing work for the turnpike commission, including engineering contract lists that tracked the name of the firm, the work, the total amount of the contract and how much that firm had been paid, the grand jury said.
Hatalowich used the lists to generate invitations to political fundraisers and to contact vendors directly about their political participation, the grsand jury said.