Judge sends six Pa. Turnpike defendants to trial

    A judge ruled Tuesday prosecutors had presented enough evidence to send to county court a bid rigging and influence peddling case against a former state senator and five others regarding Pennsylvania Turnpike business.

    District Judge William Wenner’s ruling came after a week of testimony last month and then four hours of argument Tuesday by defense lawyers who said the case lacked evidence and should be thrown out.

    Prosecutor Laurel Brandstetter described the allegations as a breach of public trust and improper influence over large contracts.

    “This is not what the public pays these people to do,” Brandstetter said, noting evidence that turnpike officials took an active role in helping politicians raise campaign money.

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    “The fact that a public entity would be involved directly with campaign events is inappropriate,” she argued.

    The other defendants are former turnpike chairman Mitch Rubin, former chief executive Joe Brimmeier, former chief operating officer George Hatalowich and two people who worked for vendors, Dennis Miller and Jeffrey Suzenski.

    Brimmeier’s lawyer, William Winning, told Wenner he has never been more convinced that a client is innocent.

    “Their witnesses established that there was no crime,” Winning said.

    Mellow, the former top-ranking Democrat in the state Senate, is serving a federal prison sentence for an unrelated corruption conviction. His attorney, Sal Cognetti, told Wenner that the allegations consisted of “unrelated dots” that prosecutors were taking “out of context to reach a preconceived conclusion.”

    “There is no evidence in this case that shows Mr. Mellow did anything wrong,” Cognetti said.

    He said Mellow has been moved repeatedly in prison because of the turnpike case.

    Hatalowich’s lawyer, Bill Fetterhoff, said the pretrial hearing testimony did not live up to the charges.

    “We were told and it was bandied about in the headlines of every newspaper in this state that this is a bribery case,” Fetterhoff said. “Where’s the bribery?”

    All six are accused of restricted activities, and all but Suzenski also are charged with bid-rigging and conspiracy. Mellow, Rubin, Brimmeier and Hatalowich also are charged with corrupt organizations and bribery.

    Arraignment is scheduled for September.

    After the hearing, Wenner granted a request by Cognetti that the attorney general’s office, which is prosecuting the case, preserve emails between its former prosecutor Frank Fina and Judge Barry Feudale, removed by the state Supreme Court as grand jury supervisory judge.

    The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Monday that Attorney General Kathleen Kane sought Feudale’s removal after discovering an email the judge sent Fina that was critical of her and her predecessor, Linda Kelly.

    Cognetti told reporters after the preliminary hearing he felt an obligation to pursue the matter, because it raised a suggestion there may have been irregularities in the grand jury process.

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