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 has also 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 currently 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 are also charged with bid-rigging and conspiracy. Mellow, Rubin, Brimmeier and Hatalowich are also charged with corrupt organizations and bribery.
When they were charged in March, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane described the allegations as a scheme to use the turnpike to benefit themselves and gain advantage in political campaigns.
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.
Brimmeier, he said, signaled to Mellow shortly after his appointment to the top job at the turnpike that he would be an ally.
“He was going to look out for us, look out for Bob Mellow, the Senate Democrats,” Lepore said.
Mellow sent the agency tickets for fundraisers to his golfing and other fundraisers, and the Senate Democrats also counted on the turnpike to help them raise campaign cash, Lepore said.
But there was never a quid pro quo between fundraising and Mellow’s official actions as a state lawmaker, Lepore said under questioning by one of Mellow’s lawyers. Some of Mellow’s events would draw thousands of people, and only a couple would be from the turnpike, he said.
Defense lawyers argued campaign efforts were protected under the First Amendment.
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.
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.