Friday, February 20, 2015

Taking the low road

TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

One Pennsylvania Turnpike commissioner allegedly instructed a vendor to be on the lookout for fund-raiser invitations. A turnpike contractor was told where to send his donations and, a grand jury found, urged to hire a top official's sister. The vice president of a technology firm wined and dined agency executives while winning progressively larger contracts that, according to the turnpike's own analysis, ultimately cost taxpayers $45 million more than it should have. Agency spoils were even handed out according to a purported political formula: 60 percent for the ruling party's contractors, 40 percent for the loyal opposition's.

Big deal: So say the lawyers representing six officials and contractors facing trial on corruption charges. "There is no there there," one attorney said of the case during pretrial arguments last week. Another asserted that his client had "a good-faith belief that as long as there was no quid pro quo, he had no criminal intent." And as yet another put it, "There is absolutely no quid pro."

Sadly, the state's top prosecutor, Attorney General Kathleen Kane, encouraged such arguments in her clumsy efforts to explain her abandonment of a separate sting investigation targeting state legislators, which she said lacked "the critical criminal element of quid pro quo." One defense lawyer read that unfortunate passage aloud from a Kane press release last week.

Dauphin County Court Judge Richard A. Lewis seemed sympathetic to such arguments, asking at one point, "Doesn't this go on everywhere, in every state, in Washington?"

First of all, let's hope $45 million premiums are not the standard government rate. And if they are, it's a serious problem that requires addressing.

The turnpike's own staff has recognized that much. An employee tasked with reviewing bids for turnpike business, repeatedly reminded that political considerations trumped professional qualifications, told grand jurors that he wondered, "Why are we even doing this?" So did Anthony Maniscola, a former inspector general for the Turnpike Commission: Based on his experience, he recommended disbanding the agency and turning its duties over to the state Department of Transportation.

Given that turnpike employees are not legally prohibited from taking gifts from contractors, one lawyer suggested last week that stricter laws should be sought from the legislature - the same legislature that has failed to muster a response to the sting that allegedly caught four of its own members taking money, prompting Kane's fateful "quid pro quo" axiom.

Even if the legislature were somehow shamed into toughening the state's notoriously weak campaign-finance laws, one wonders whether anything with teeth would survive a cloistered judiciary bent on enabling a free-for-all. Consider a federal appellate court's recent decision overturning Philadelphia's nearly century-old ban on campaign contributions from police officers, which is a reasonable attempt to separate police powers from political influence. The court's naive ruling is in keeping with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions dismantling federal campaign-finance laws - and promising all Americans a turnpike-style wreck.

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