HARRISBURG — Supposedly, it was an open secret.
Of the allegations emerging from a sweeping grand jury investigation into corruption at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, one of the most damning was witness testimony that lucrative contracts were guided by politics: 60 percent were awarded to supporters of the governor’s political party and 40 percent to those of the other.
The perversion of the turnpike commission’s process of hiring environmental, design and engineering consultants to reward political contributors was a familiar subject in Harrisburg’s circles of power, said Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan.
Still, only one elected official — former Senate Democratic floor leader Bob Mellow from Lackawanna County — is facing charges, while some top lawmakers and commission members, past and present, say they knew nothing of such allegedly pervasive corruption.
“I think that this type of activity has been well-known and well-discussed throughout political circles for a number of years,” Noonan told reporters as he and Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced the charges. “But … you have to have evidence. The people who were charged are the people we have evidence against.”
It was not enough to charge an elected official simply because they knew about the 60/40 rule: Evidence was necessary that someone had worked to rig the process, Kane said.
On Wednesday, Mellow, three former top Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission officials and two businessmen were charged in what prosecutors say was a long-running scheme in which contract-hungry vendors gave lavish gifts and political campaign contributions to improve their chances of landing a contract.
Contracting decisions at the Turnpike typically followed the 60/40 rule, according to the 85-page grand jury presentment.
“According to several witnesses testifying before the grand jury, whichever political party (is) in power gets 60 percent of the contracts or jobs, and the minority party receives 40 percent.”
The turnpike commission might be unavoidably political: The governor nominates turnpike commissioners to four-year terms and each must be confirmed by a two-thirds majority of the state Senate, giving senators influence there. Traditionally, three of the five turnpike commissioners are from the governor’s political party, and one must be the state transportation secretary.
According to the grand jury, an unnamed former chief operating officer of the turnpike commission said “typically, there was always a 60/40 rule” that was dictated by either the Senate leadership or the governor’s office.
Allen Biehler, Rendell’s transportation secretary for eight years, said he had heard about the 60/40 split, perhaps even before he became transportation secretary in 2003. But he said he did not know if it was true.
As a commissioner, he voted on contracts, relying on commission staff to recommend a firm. He would quiz the staff about their conclusions, but he did not have time to review all the competing proposals for each job, he said.
Still, the culture at the agency worried him.
“I always had an uncomfortable feeling about the place,” said Biehler, who said he was not contacted by law enforcement.
Rendell, a Democrat who served from 2003 to 2011, as well as House Speaker Sam Smith, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, all of whom were in positions of power during the period scrutinized by the grand jury, said through spokespeople that they knew nothing of the 60/40 split.
Former Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill did not want to discuss it. One former commissioner, Timothy Carson, and current Commissioner Pasquale Deon, who joined it in 2002, did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, who served until 2006, said rigging contracts is “completely foreign” to anything he or his fellow Republicans did while running the Senate. If a formula to guide hiring was developed, he did not know about it, he said.
“We recommended people who were very competent,” said Jubelirer, who also said he was not contacted by law enforcement. “Sometimes they got hired, sometimes they didn’t.”