Ex-inspector general: Disband turnpike board [The Philadelphia Inquirer]
(Philadelphia Inquirer (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 06--The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission should be disbanded, with turnpike operations placed under control of the state Department of Transportation, the turnpike's former inspector general says.
Political influence, patronage jobs, and pay-to-play contracting are still pervasive despite a recent state grand jury investigation that resulted in criminal charges against eight people, said Anthony Maniscola, the recently retired inspector general.
"They should get rid of the commissioners, put the turnpike under PennDot, and run it like a real highway agency," Maniscola said in an interview Thursday.
Maniscola retired this month after five years as the Turnpike Commission's first inspector general.
He said progress had been made in rooting out no-show workers, thieving supervisors "who used the turnpike as their own little Home Depot," and toll collectors with their hands in the till.
But at the top, where four politically appointed commissioners rule, much remains to be done, Maniscola said.
The commissioners, appointed by the governor, are expected to attend about 20 commission meetings a year (11 of which are to be conducted this year by telephone). Each is paid $26,000 a year ($28,500 for the chairman), and gets a free car for personal and official use, a no-limit expense account, and a free pass on all tolls.
The four appointed commissioners are Chairman William K. Lieberman, a Pittsburgh insurance executive; Republican power broker Pasquale "Pat" Deon, a Bucks County restaurateur and beer distributor (and SEPTA board chairman); Carlisle lawyer Michael Pratt; and former Democratic State Sen. Sean Logan of Monroeville, Allegheny County.
Barry J. Schoch, secretary of transportation, serves as a fifth member of the Turnpike Commission by dint of his position.
The appointed commissioners wield significant influence in who gets jobs and contracts at the turnpike, often rewarding political friends and helping raise money for favored political candidates, Maniscola said.
He said the appointed commissioners treated the turnpike as "their own little fiefdom."
"Transparency? That's the one thing the turnpike doesn't want," he said.
Turnpike Commission spokesman William Capone said Thursday, "We are disappointed that a former employee, recently passed over for a promotion when the commission created its new Office of Compliance and clearly disgruntled, would make such comments at this time.
"They clearly ignore the progress this agency has made over the past 21/2 years in its ongoing efforts to improve operations and become more efficient, transparent, and accountable.
"Much work remains to be done in this regard, and the commission is committed to continuing the effort to regain the trust and confidence of our customers and stakeholders."
The Turnpike Commission last September hired David Gentile, a former FBI agent in Philadelphia, to oversee the inspector general and serve as the turnpike's chief compliance officer.
Gentile has promised that the agency will be retooled to make it more accountable and efficient.
Maniscola praised Gentile and said he would bring needed change.
One of those changes, Maniscola said, is in contracting procedures.
Now, money is wasted on contracts that are awarded to low bidders who then increase their prices through frequent "change orders" that raise the cost of projects, Maniscola said. He said the turnpike should change its contracting procedures to base contract awards on performance instead of just low bids.
He declined to name specific projects or contractors because of an ongoing state grand jury investigation and internal reviews of turnpike practices.
An earlier grand jury issued a damning 85-page report in March leading to criminal charges against eight people, including former Senate Democratic leader Robert J. Mellow, former Turnpike Commission Chairman Mitchell Rubin, and former turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier.
The grand jury report made many of the same accusations that Maniscola did, portraying a culture of money, political favoritism, and influence-peddling at the Turnpike Commission, with contractors selected on the basis of political contributions to state officials.
Maniscola criticized the Turnpike Commission for continuing to fight lawsuits from former employees who contend they were fired for trying to expose corruption at the agency.
The grand jury relied on those whistle-blowers for some of its information, and when the state announced the charges, Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said turnpike whistle-blowers had suffered for their actions.
In the wake of the grand jury report, the turnpike's new chief executive, Mark Compton, said the agency would investigate all its contracts with lawyers, financiers, engineers, and others.
Compton, a former aide to Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and U.S. Rep. William Clinger (R., Pa.) and a recent deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation, ordered "a thorough review of every professional-services contract that was cited in the attorney general's presentment" and all current contracts that were awarded during the four years of the grand jury investigation.
Compton, who started work in February, "is trying to do the right thing," Maniscola said.
"He gets out in the field, he talks to the blue-collar guys, which never happened before. I'm impressed with him."
And Maniscola praised the turnpike's "rank-and-file guys. They're the best."
Maniscola, a former special agent for the state Attorney General's Office, was hired in 2008 to be the turnpike's first inspector general.
No replacement has been named for Maniscola.
Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or email@example.com.
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