Karen Heller: Playing by the Turnpike Commission's rules of the road

Mitchell Rubin, chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission escorted wife Ruth Arnao when she was convicted last year along with former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

Instead of pay-to-play, it was pay-to-pave.

To land Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission business, contractors bidding for work made hefty campaign donations to mostly Democratic political potentates while wooing turnpike executives with meals, baseball tickets, and trips.

Yes, you're probably as shocked as I am.

The grand jury report released last week by Attorney General Kathleen Kane is a sad, sordid reminder that the more things appear to change . . . the more they really don't. Over time, weathering so many scandals, the commission has been labeled "the cauldron of corruption" and "the poster child for patronage and waste in Harrisburg." Which is so not fair to the Liquor Control Board.

Operating under the "60/40 rule," turnpike executives gave 60 percent of the business to firms connected with the party in power, and 40 percent to the other party, generally at the discretion of state Senate leaders, and to the benefit of zero taxpayers.

While the political contributions were generous, as were the assorted treats, they were mere coins at the toll booth compared with the huge contracts awarded to "favored nation status" companies. One firm secured a $3.5 million contract one year, and a no-bid $58 million contract the next. Happy motoring!

Among the eight men indicted were imprisoned felon and former State Sen. Bob Mellow, and former Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, the Sancho Panza to imprisoned felon and former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's Don Quixote.

Fumo is a major player in the report, mentioned 65 times though never by name. Instead, he's "Senator #6."

Which must really hurt because, in Fumoworld, he was always Senator #1.

And yet, suddenly, so many savvy, seasoned politicians were caught unaware as to the commission's creative projects.

Ed Rendell, whose eight-year governorship overlapped with many of the activities the grand jury investigated, appears as "Gubernatorial candidate #1," the beneficiary of many donations from firms bidding on turnpike business. Rendell, normally loquacious and prone to railing about "wusses," responded to the report with a wan statement that he was unaware of "any inappropriate activity."

Former Turnpike Commissioner and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady ("the Congressman"), whose ally and former turnpike employee Melvin Shelton was indicted, also disavowed knowledge of untoward deals. "When I was a commissioner there, I never did nothing nowhere near that," said Brady, delivering the hat trick of a triple negative.

"The Turnpike is like the Mesopotamia River. All of the animals come and drink there," a witness told the grand jury. "If you were an engineering firm or a law firm or a consulting firm or whatever, you go to the Turnpike because that's where the money is."

Where taxpayers and toll-payers saw 514 miles of hard road, all the consulting animals saw a trough of refreshing liquid gold.

The Turnpike Commission has long had an inflated staff, employing far more workers per mile of road maintained than PennDot. Established in 1937, the commission was supposed to put itself out of business and drive into the sunset once all debt was cleared.

But that's unlikely to happen because debt, along with hiring patronage hacks and shaking down potential contractors, is something at which the commission excels. Current debt totals more than $8 billion.

Kudos to Kane and Tom Corbett, the former state attorney general, for the four-year ongoing investigation. The legislature ought to close the road on the Turnpike Commission, and move its responsibilities into PennDot.

But that's unlikely to happen given that legislative leaders have been among the commission's primary beneficiaries. After all, this is Pennsylvania, the land that reform forgot.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.