2013-07-25 / Local & State

Judge Weighs Case Against Pa. Turnpike Defendants

By Mark Scolforo

ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A judge was considering Tuesday whether prosecutors had presented enough evidence in a bid rigging and influence peddling case against a former state senator and five others regarding Pennsylvania Turnpike business.

District Judge William Wenner had to decide whether the case should be sent to county court for trial following four hours of argument by defense lawyers, who said the case lacked evidence and should be thrown out.

Prosecutor Laurel Branstetter described the allegations as a breach of public trust and improper influence over large contracts.

“This is not what the public pays these people to do,” Branstetter said, noting evidence that turnpike officials took an active role in helping politicians raise campaign money.

“The fact that a public entity would be involved directly with campaign events is inappropriate,” she argued.

The other defendants are former turnpike Chairman Mitch Rubin, former Chief Executive Joe Brimmeier, former Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich and two people who worked for vendors, Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski.

Brimmeier’s lawyer, William Winning, told Wenner he has never been more convinced that a client is innocent.

“Their witnesses established that there was no crime,” Winning said.

Mellow, the former topranking Democrat in the state Senate, is serving a federal prison sentence for an unrelated corruption conviction. His attorney, Sal Cognetti, told Wenner that the allegations consisted of “unrelated dots” that prosecutors were taking “out of context to reach a preconceived conclusion.”

“There is no evidence in this case that shows Mr. Mellow did anything wrong,” Cognetti said.

He said Mellow has been moved repeatedly in prison because of the turnpike case.

Hatalowich’s lawyer, Bill Fetterhoff, said the pretrial hearing testimony did not live up to the charges.

“We were told and it was bandied about in the headlines of every newspaper in this state that this is a bribery case,” Fetterhoff said. “Where’s the bribery?”

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.

A seventh defendant, Raymond Zajicek, waived his preliminary hearing, and the eighth, Melvin Shelton, is scheduled for a separate hearing in September. Both are accused of theft, misapplication of entrusted property and unauthorized use of vehicles, among other counts.

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