'Untold Millions' Lost to Turnpike Corruption

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG -- Colorado-based Ciber Inc. snagged a 2005 Turnpike Commission contract with a $3.2 million bid almost seven times higher than IBM's $496,000 low bid, a decision that reeked of insider dealing, witnesses told a grand jury.

The Ciber contract, some witnesses testified, wasn't even necessary. It grew by $62.7 million in 2006, an extension the grand jury called "dramatic and unprecedented."

The grand jury's more than three-year investigation into turnpike operations resulted in charges this month against eight people.

As the case continues, Ciber still does business with the state. PennDOT last week said it awarded the company an $8.6 million contract that the agency said was competitively bid and above board.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in announcing the charges, said corruption in the turnpike case cost the state "untold millions."

Anyone using the turnpike since 2004 paid more for tolls. Yet how much any corruption contributed to toll increases is not known. Since 2008, much of the increased revenue from higher tolls has gone to PennDOT for statewide road work, bridges and mass transit.

"There's no specific number (on corruption costs)," said Carl DeFebo, a Turnpike Commission spokesman. Of the Ciber contract, he said: "We are pursuing all civil remedies (for recovery), and the process is ongoing."

"If there is a kickback, the bid is jacked up," said Jack Treadway, former chairman of the political science department at Kutztown University. "Lower bidders don't have an equal chance."

Throughout state government, it's difficult, if not impossible, to estimate corruption costs, said Jerry Shuster, a professor of political rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The actual cost in dollars and cents is pretty much incalculable," Shuster said. "The major cost is damage to the public trust and the people who administer it."

Proven corruption reinforces the public perception that all government officials are corrupt, when that clearly is not true, he said.

Taxpayers bear burden

Since a 42.5 percent toll increase in 2004, the cost of driving the turnpike increased from 5.9 cents per mile to 10.9 cents this year, or 8.6 cents with an E-ZPass, according to agency figures. Since 2004, 1.6 billion vehicles have traveled the turnpike. During that period, they paid a combined $5.7 billion in tolls, according to turnpike figures compiled by the Tribune-Review.

A share of those toll increases since 2008 stems from Act 44, which requires the Turnpike Commission to pay $450 million a year to PennDOT.

For turnpike drivers who paid cash, tolls have risen 71 percent since 2008, said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation; for E-ZPass customers, 35 percent.

"There is a tremendous cost to the people of Pennsylvania for the corruption and mismanagement at the Turnpike Commission," he said.

Recent corruption cases in state government dug into taxpayers' pockets:

- In the House Democratic bonus scandal, convicted officials provided $1.4 million in bonuses to legislative staffers who worked on campaigns.

- In a House Republican computer scandal, top GOP lawmakers and staff illegally spent $10 million on computer equipment and databases purchased for campaigns. …