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New Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Compton vows to ‘change culture’ | TribLIVE.com
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New Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Compton vows to ‘change culture’

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Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Mark Compton

HARRISBURG — When Turnpike CEO Mark Compton finished reading an 85-page grand jury report charging widespread corruption at the agency, he concluded, “It was sickening.”

Still, he said, he read it twice.

Compton, a former deputy PennDOT secretary, joined the turnpike as top executive on Feb. 1, less than six weeks before the grand jury alleged a “pay-to-play” scheme in which campaign contributions and gifts paved the way to turnpike contracts. Now Compton, 39, vows to “change the culture” at the agency where corruption has surfaced periodically.

He understands the public skepticism.

“Candidly, we’ve had a rough couple weeks,” Compton told the Tribune-Review in an interview Wednesday.

After a Lancaster newspaper editorial said Compton’s pledges for change “ring hollow,” Compton said: “My words do ring hollow. They are just words right now.”

Compton ordered a review of all contracts mentioned in the grand jury report. He vowed that “firewalls” will keep executives and commissioners from meddling in contracts. He said he will explore the possibility of limits on campaign fundraising by commission employees and donations by vendors.

Employees who see wrongdoing will be required to report it, Compton said. The grand jury noted that several whistleblowers contend they were fired or demoted to block their testimony.

Compton said he knows taxpayers think, “We’ll believe it when we see it,” but said, “I am determined to make sure they see it and believe it.”

The grand jury investigated the turnpike for four years.

Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, said he’s skeptical about the prospects for long-term change.

“It’s been going on for so long. The director can do everything in his power to change the rules and apply best practices, but if the commissioners themselves don’t check their own behavior it’s going to be business as usual,” he said.

The fifth commissioner is PennDOT’s secretary, a nonvoting member. The other four are political appointees of governors, with staggered terms, whose appointments require Senate confirmation. That power gave key senators of both parties enormous influence at the agency that oversees 514 miles of highway.

The grand jury report led to charges against former Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow of Scranton and top agency employees.

Mellow is in federal prison on a separate charge of using state resources for campaigns.

“When you maintain a political playground susceptible to nepotism, cronyism and back-room deals, you may be able to clean it up for a time but you can never make it safe again for taxpayers,” said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg. “At a minimum, the Turnpike Commission should be abolished and the road placed under PennDOT control.”

Republican Rep. Donna Oberlander of Clarion County is preparing a bill to do that.

Limiting campaign donations is beyond the power of the turnpike director, Baldino said. It would require legislation.

Compton said he believes most of the agency’s 2,100 employees are honest people who are angered by the corruption the grand jury found.

Compton worked in government affairs for American Infrastructure, a company that had turnpike contracts.

The turnpike’s past is littered with reports of patronage and cronyism that doled out contracts to the politically connected.

Former Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, a defendant in the pay-to-play case, was named as a “ghost employee” of ex-Senate power broker Vincent Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat with enormous influence at the turnpike.

After Fumo’s conviction on fraud charges in 2009, then-Gov. Ed Rendell fired Rubin.

Rubin pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2010 and was sentenced to five years of probation.

Compton addressed available employees in the lobby of turnpike headquarters March 13, after Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced the charges, and told them: “Today’s not about you.”

He said the “single message I’ve worked hard to convey to them is, ‘This was not your fault but I need you to help make the corrections.’ ”

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].

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