Pennsylvania Turnpike’s cronyism illustrates another reason to hate toll roads

May 3, 2018

Chuck Robinson

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One of many reasons I don’t like toll roads is the cronyism that comes with it. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which operates America’s first superhighway, is a prime example of why cronyism is a problem with toll roads.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is suing the Turnpike Commission. The lawsuit was filed in March. OOIDA argues that the Turnpike’s repeated and high toll increases unduly burden to interstate commerce. OOIDA also objects to toll revenue paying for projects unrelated to the turnpike.

It’s not just cronyism

I have a list of reasons that toll roads are a terrible way to fund highway construction and upkeep.

My list includes toll revenue not going to maintain the roads where the money is collected. Also, toll roads are state-created monopolies designed to create revenue. The cost to collect tolls is too high. Toll roads push traffic onto other roads. Plus, I am sick of hearing politicians saying it is new money. No, the public just has to pay twice, once in taxes and again in tolls.

There is more, but cronyism is the topic on which I want to set my focus.

I am dredging up some history here. It is recent history, but we need to remember it. We need to act on it. It is sort of like the “Remember in November” theme of the May 2018 issue of Land Line Magazine, where we ask OOIDA members to remember which politician did not have our back in the fight against electronic logging devices. Remember, and vote them out.

Likewise, remember the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission pay-to-play scandal. That is the product of cronyism.

Hold on, though. It is not just the hucksterism that comes with cronyism that bothers me. It is the unfairness of such amoral thieves getting off nearly scot-free after bilking the Turnpike Commission, the state and society of millions of dollars.

But what happens to the trucker who does his best to abide by all laws and tries to be the knight in shining armor on the highways if something goes wrong? The trucker will not get off scot-free. I am sure of that.

Turnpike cronyism

So, back to the cronyism at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

Former state Sen. Robert Mellow was involved, and so was former Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier and former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, among others.

In March 2013, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane told the public about a wide-ranging culture of bid rigging and bribery at the Turnpike Commission. At the root of the problems was the political cronyism we are talking about.

Kane alleged these men misused and stole millions of dollars of public money. She alleged they solicited for campaign contributions from Turnpike vendors and staff. She said they tried to influence elections.

Her office hit Rubin, former Senate president pro tempore and former chairman of the Turnpike Commission, with charges of one count of commercial bribery, one count of unlawful bid rigging, one count of criminal conspiracy, two counts of corrupt organizations and other charges.

The AG office hit former CEO Brimmeier with two counts of corrupt organizations, two counts of bid rigging, one count of commercial bribery, one count of criminal conspiracy and other charges.

Kane’s office hit former Chief Operating Officer Hatalowich with three counts of bid rigging, two counts of corrupt organizations, one count of commercial bribery, one count of criminal intent, one count of criminal conspiracy and other charges.

Want to bet how many years in jail each of them got in sentencing?

Not one day. They walked.

Instead, Brimmeier and Hatalowich each pleaded guilty to felony conflict of interest charges. Each was sentenced to five years of probation and 250 hours of community service, and fined $2,500.

Rubin was sentenced to two years of probation after pleading guilty in a plea deal to a commercial bribery charge.

That’s it.

What’s more, the former officials did not lose their state pensions. Also, taxpayers had to pay $300,000 in legal fees for them.

By the way, Rubin also was involved in the scandal where state Sen. Vincent Fumo in 2009 was convicted of 137 counts in a federal corruption trail

That is how cronyism works.

How do you think the following news affected the of the Turnpike Commission charges? Once Attorney General Kane announced the charges in 2013, though, political opponents hit her with a grand jury investigation in 2014. It investigated a bribery sting investigation that her predecessor has begun but she curtailed. It involved hundreds of dollars instead of millions.

In August 2016, Kane gets convicted for illegally leaking grand jury information to embarrass a political foe and then lying to investigators about it. The judge gives her a sentence of 10-23 months in prison. However, she remains free as she appeals her case.

Cynical immorality of cronyism

So, look, these Pennsylvania Turnpike felons pay nearly nothing for diverting millions of dollars to the pockets of their cronies.

Meanwhile, the trucker situation I mentioned earlier really happens. I am thinking of a case where a young truck driver was fresh out of some CDL school and on his first trucking job working for a household goods mover.

I recognize in him the kid I used to be: anxious to get started on a career, humping to please an employer, and feeling invincible and able to handle anything, as young men often do. Then there is one misstep. One mistake. A wreck. Someone is hurt. Everything comes crashing down.

He had the best intentions. However, he went to jail. He is out now, but will he ever recover? We carry scars like that for a lifetime, so I don’t know.

And the cronyism at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission lets the bid rigging perpetrators go free.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has provided grist for the media’s mill for decades, as reporter Brad Bumstead has documented. Here is a taste of the expanded history.

Chuck Robinson

Chuck Robinson formerly was senior copy editor for a weekly trade publication serving the fresh produce industry. He has served trade publications, horticultural journals and community newspapers for 25 years.

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