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The Pa. Turnpike scandal: A weak case? Or a weak AG?

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HARRISBURG — Seldom has a Pennsylvania corruption case hyped like the Pennsylvania Turnpike scandal produced such meager results.

Eight people were charged in March 2013, a little more than two months after Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, took office. Not a single person went to prison.

The so-called “pay to play” case resulted in the public losing “millions” through inflated contracts to companies that paid for officials' travel, gifts, entertainment and substantial campaign contributions to favored lawmakers and statewide candidates, Kane charged.

“The grand jury found these men were using the turnpike to line their pockets and to influence elections,” Kane said. “That is stealing from the public pure and simple.”

A vendor and a consultant, however, ended up under the probation-without-verdict program usually reserved for drunken drivers.

Perhaps the biggest fish, former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow, of Scranton, who served federal time on an unrelated corruption charge, saw all the charges against him dismissed by Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis.

Most recently, former Turnpike Commission CEO Joe Brimmeier, of Ross, and former Chief Operating Officer George Hatalowich, of Harrisburg, pleaded guilty to felony conflict of interest charges and were placed on five years' probation.

If there was evidence of “pay to play” — campaign cash in return for contracts — I missed it.

I do not know why this case wasn't aggressively pursued by Kane's office. For months, former Senior Deputy Attorney General Laurel Brandstetter often was the only prosecutor lining up against as many as a dozen seasoned defense lawyers.

Most telling — none of the plea deals were “cooperative agreements” whereby testimony was secured against a high-ranking official.

From the perspective of someone who covered it closely, all I can offer is theories:

• This wasn't Kane's case. The probe was initiated by former Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, elected governor in 2010 and defeated for re-election in November. There was bad blood between Kane and former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina, who put the case together.

• The departure of senior seasoned criminal prosecutors like Fina who wanted no part of working for Kane, whom they considered inexperienced and political — despite her campaign theme that she was a “prosecutor not a politician.”

• In the end, Kane didn't want to send other Democrats to prison. Was she under any pressure to let them walk, especially Mellow, from her hometown?

• A desire to focus on other priorities, her mobile street crime unit and, of course, her review of the almost three-year Jerry Sandusky investigation by Corbett, which found no evidence of deliberate delay.

• The obvious: There wasn't much evidence of crimes. Defense attorney William Fetterhoff, who represented defendants in Democrat and Republican corruption cases launched by Corbett and Fina, said the turnpike case was comparatively weak.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).

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