Allegations of conflicts of interest and pay-to-play politics continue to dog Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and his administration.
Notably, millions in secretive no-bid contracts handed out to Ballard Spahr, the governor’s former law firm, as well as the governor’s receipt of $91,000 in contributions from Texas trial lawyer Ken Bailey while a state contract was being negotiated, have contributed to fostering suspicion and cynicism over how state contracts are awarded.
The issue now is the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
After submitting several Right-to-Know requests to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, some of which were denied, The Bulletin has learned that the Saul Ewing law firm has received no fewer than seven contracts since 2000.
Turnpike commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The governor’s Secretary of Transportation also serves on the commission.
The vice chairman of the Turnpike Commission, Tim Carson, is also a partner at Saul Ewing. Many political observers believe the turnpike commissioners have a considerable amount of influence when it comes to awarding contracts.
Additional requests have been made to determine the firm’s billable hours and total contract amounts, if the contracts were no-bid, as most professional legal services are, and whether Mr. Carson recused himself from votes involving his firm.
Saul Ewing, a limited liability partnership, has contributed $188,750 to Gov. Rendell’s campaigns. Individual associates at the firm have donated an additional $42,750.
Mr. Carson and Saul Ewing partners Gabriel Bevilacqua and former special counsel Patrick T. Beaty were selected to serve on Mr. Rendell’s transition team’s committees on judicial, transportation and insurance issues.
State Rep. Curt Schroder, R-155th, of Chester County, said recusing oneself and following ethics procedures do not necessarily eliminate conflicts of interest.
"You still have the conflict and the appearance of a conflict that is maintained," Mr. Schroder said. "There are other firms in this state that could no doubt handle [this type] of legal work. Why it would have to go to a law firm where a turnpike commissioner is a partner certainly raises a question."
Bill Keisling, author of several books detailing patronage within the Pennsylvania Turnpike, said the commission is a "hotbed of blatant inside dealing and patronage."
"The commission should be abolished and outside management brought in to manage the turnpike for the public," he stated.
Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based think tank, characterized the Turnpike Commission’s patronage and self-dealing as "legendary."
He said numerous books have chronicled its "nefarious activities and resistance to reform efforts."
"It is no surprise that the commission is making it difficult to get information," Mr. Brouillette said. "The commission bosses understand that transparency and accountability would be the demise of their corrupt and scandal-laden operation."
Mr. Brouillette said significant reform was long overdue.
"What we need is someone with the courage to drain that cesspool of political patronage and corruption," he said.
Mr. Carson could not be reached for comment by press time.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]