Penn Pike's Fumo holdovers under increasing legal and political threat

September 22, 2010
By Peter Samuel

Accumulating legal problems and looming political ructions seem likely to bring big changes at the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Several wrongful dismissal cases are on the way to trial, federal and state grand jury investigations into patronage hiring and corrupt contracting are ripening, and there's a looming landslide that will likely install at year's end a Republican and the current Attorney-general as Governor.

Tom Corbett as Republican candidate for Governor has a 56 to 39 percent lead over Allegheny County executive Dan Oranato according to a Quinnipiac poll out Tuesday. His margin among key independent voters is an amazing 27 points with 56% for Corbett to 29% for the Democrat.

Chief of electoral ops

Turnpike staff have been working the telephones, printers and emails for Democrat Oranato for weeks, according to informants who have contacted TOLLROADSnews. At the Turnpike they're calling George Hatolowich chief of electoral operations. One told us the electoral crew have been "shaking down" contractors for $s for the lagging Pittsburgh Democrat.

To no avail apparently.

Corbett's lead grows and he now looks to be a shoo-in.

Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute says: "Attorney General Tom Corbett is in strong position to be Pennsylvania's next governor. Not only is his lead substantial, but his supporters are slightly less likely to say they might change their minds than are Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato's. Only 7 percent of voters are undecided. So Onorato must win all of those voters and convert Corbett supporters as well. An Onorato victory probably would require a sea change among independent voters who are now strongly in Corbett's camp and often are the group that decides elections."

Corbett, as attorney-general has been in charge of the state investigations of the Turnpike, though he has been careful, so far, not to be seen as using it for partisan advantage. But the likely next governor clearly has a detailed inside view of the Turnpike's less savory workings.

Will Rendell move?

There's some speculation in Harrisburg that Governor Ed Rendell (Democrat), who is term-limited out of office at this year's election is concerned about his legacy. To burnish it, they suggest, he might pull the surprise of getting ahead of Corbett by removing some of the leadership of the Turnpike - described as Fumo holdovers - before he leaves office.

It would be uncharacteristic of Rendell however, Harrisburg hands say. He is notoriously reluctant to fire anyone however much damage they do him.

Other speculation is that the board of Commissioners, notoriously a rubberstamp for decisions by Brimmeier and Hatalowich might actually stir themselves to some independence of action.

That too would be out of character.

Meanwhile law suits roll on.

Within the next few weeks the case of former labor relations manager Don Kovak versus the Turnpike seems likely to be sent to trial. He has a sensational story to tell of pandering to the toll collectors union over violent behavior against a customer. And how he was accused of disloyalty for not accomodating the union.

In addition the details of the very recent law suit by Eileen Conroy are circulating. Its text which we've posted below is especially sharply written.

Conroy is suing the Turnpike Commission, CEO Joe Brimmeier, chief of operations George Hatalowich and her former boss chief legal officer Doreen McCall.

"Long, infamous history..."

Conroy's 'Complaint' filed in US District Court in Pittsburgh begins its BACKGROUND section: "The PTC (turnpike commission) has a long, infamous history of valuing political connections over merit when making employment decisions. This system, known as the patronage system, is the lifeblood of the PTC."

The Turnpike Commission responded to the 1990 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Routan v Republican Party of Illinois against patronage appointments with a 1992 Policy Letter 65 "Policy and Procedure for Promoting Employees," laying out a merit-based set of procedures. And in 2001 another Policy 27 with the same title and the same ostensible objective was issued at the Turnpike.

But says the Conroy Complaint: "Despite the PTC's superficial attempts to eradicate the political patronage system from its employment practices, the political patronage system still saturates the PTC."

The Complaint doesn't refer to the circumstances of Conroy's initial employment.

She had been a District Justice (formerly known as Justice of the Peace) a kind of magistrate, in Oakdale PA in the Pittsburgh suburbs.

That is an elected position.

So she herself may well have been an initial beneficiary of political connections when hired, according to one Turnpiker (a present or past employee or officer of the Turnpike, a term we just coined - editor).

Conroy was employed as a para-legal in the Turnpike's legal department from mid-September 2007 until March 19, 2010. She worked under one of the defendants, Doreen McCall, general counsel to the Turnpike.

In April 2009 Conroy applied for a position as Credit and Collections Supervisor (called the Credit Position) in the Turnpike's finance department.

Following interviews of candidates one of the three members of the selection committee told Conroy she was the preferred candidate.

She'd got the job. Or nearly.

Conroy was also told that an outsider Thomas J Gajewiski, (see SPELLING note below) a former Democratic Party county commissioner (2004-2008) from Berks County (county seat Reading, northwest of Philadelphia) had been belatedly added to the list of candidates on the order of CEO Joe Brimmeier and operating officer George Hatalowich. They were doing the bidding of the local Democratic Party machine.

Gajewiski was hired.

The complaint states: "Mr Gajewiski was ultimately chosen for the position, due to his political connections. Upon information and belief, Defendants Brimmeier and Hatalowich imposed their wills to have the politically connected Mr Gajewiski hired for the Credit Position.

"Indeed after commencing work, Mr Gajewiski made his political connections quite known to his fellow PTC employees, often commenting to PTC colleagues about whom he knew, and how he was hired for the Credit Position."

But Gajewiski was so hopeless in the job he was soon fired. He was unable to type or use a computer.

Talk reaches grand jury

There was widespread talk at the Turnpike about the fiasco of the short-lived Gajewiski as a classic act of patronage by CEO Joe Brimmeier, a longtime Pittsburgh pol, and his offsider George Hatalowich. The talk apparently reached investigators working for the state grand jury investigation into the Turnpike's patronage hiring practices.

Mid-January 2010 Eileen Conroy was subpoenaed to testify to the state grand jury.

Before testifying she met with her boss Doreen McCall and other attorneys. McCall said she would be representing not only the Turnpike, but Conroy also.

Revealed her answers at rehearsal

In that first meeting with McCall present she was taken through the kind of questioning she was likely to face at the grand jury, including detailed questions on what she knew about the Gajewiski hire and fire.

The suit says that at both this rehearsal meeting with McCall present, and at the subsequent grand jury meeting itself where she was asked about the Gajewiski hire, Conroy answered fully and factually as she knew it - truthfully.

Three weeks after her grand jury appearance she was fired.

There was no complaint made about her job performance.

The Complaint says that they wanted her fired "in retaliation for (her) grand jury testimony" and urged CEO Brimmeier and COO Hatalowich to act to dismiss her.

Says the Complaint: "The three individual Defendants (McCall, Brimmeier and Hatalowich) thus conspired to have Plaintiff (Conroy) fired in retaliation for her testimony in front of the grand jury."

Also: "...Defendants Brimmeier and Hatalowich saw to it that a politically connected individual, rather than the most qualified candidate, was hired.

"Political patronage was the motivating factor in hiring Mr Gajewiski; his termination so soon after beginning employment is testament to his incompetence.

"As final decision makers, acting under the color of law, Defendants Brimmeier and Hatalowich were in the best position to ensure that the PTC followed the Rutan Court's directive of eradicating politics from non-political employment decisions..."

It claims: "Defendants, under color of State law, and in violation of Plaintiff's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and in further violation of Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, retaliated against Plaintiff for exercising her First Amendment rights to testify in front of a grand jury."

The suit also says Conroy had a civic duty to testify to a grand jury and that McCall, Brimmeier and Hatalowich violated the state whistleblower law in retaliating against her with dismissal. It also claims they interfered with her ability to get unemployment pay.

They are accused of acting deliberately to harm her as a retaliatory act.

She asks for a jury trial for compensation for damages.

copy of complaint: http://www.tollroadsnews.com/sites/default/files/ConroySuit.pdf

governor's race poll data: http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1327.xml?ReleaseID=1502

SPELLING: The Conroy lawsuit spells the patronage hire Gajewiski (two 'i's, 4 syllables) and we've used that spelling. However the reports from his time as County Commissioner show he was Gajewski (one 'i', 3 syllables).  For example from Pennsylvania Progressive: "Suffice it to say Gajewski was done in by some of his fellow Democrats as much as by (Republican)  Christian Leinbach.

Watch for Gajew?ski follow-up - editor TOLLROADSnews 2010-09-22


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