By Tony Romeo

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBS) — A former Democratic leader in the Pennsylvania state senate and several former top officials of the Pennsylvania Turnpike were charged today in an alleged pay-to-play conspiracy.

The charges were announced this morning at a state capitol news conference.

Bribery, bid-rigging, conspiracy, and other charges have been filed against former state senate Democratic leader Robert Mellow, former turnpike commissioner Mitchell Rubin, former turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier.

Mellow is currently serving time in a federal prison after pleading guilty to unrelated crimes.

Several other former turnpike employees and vendors also faced various charges.

Three are former turnpike officials: George Hatalowich, 47, of Harrisburg, the former chief operating officer; Melvin Shelton, of Philadelphia; and Raymond Zajicek, of Tarpon Springs, Fla.

The other defendants are two turnpike vendors: Dennis Miller, of Harrisburg; and consultant Jeffrey Suzenski, of Pottstown.

Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane says the men charged in this case used the turnpike to line their pockets and influence elections in a pay-to-play scheme.

(Pa. attorney general Kathleen Kane, announcing charges in the turnpike corruption case.  Credit: Tony Romeo)

(Pa. attorney general Kathleen Kane, announcing charges in the turnpike corruption case. Credit: Tony Romeo)

“Turnpike officials were using their power to make sure that money was given to their political candidates,” Kane (right) said today.  “In exchange for that, they were bid-rigging.”

Kane says the men acted in a blatant fashion, almost as if they had no fear of being caught.

The state police commissioner says some brave state employees spoke up and were fired or otherwise punished.

“The public has lost untold millions of dollars,” Kane said. “The greatest improper influence was exerted over the turnpike’s procurement process.”

The investigation began several years ago and has been conducted largely in secret.

In 2009, turnpike officials disclosed they had received subpoenas from state investigators.

The turnpike figured tangentially in the federal criminal case against former state senator Vincent Fumo, convicted of fraud and related charges in 2009 because his co-defendant was married to Rubin, the turnpike chairman.  The Fumo aide, Ruth Arnao, was also found guilty at that trial.

Rubin served six months of house arrest for obstruction of justice after admitting in 2010 that he misled FBI agents and a federal grand jury.

Gov. Ed Rendell had ousted Rubin in March 2009, citing what he called “overwhelming” evidence in trial testimony that Rubin had been paid $150,000 for a no-work job for the Appropriations Committee under Fumo, a Philadelphia Democrat.

Fumo is currently in a Kentucky federal prison.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has about 2,100 employees and an operating budget of about $315 million. It manages 552 miles of turnpike, and last year it served about 192 million vehicles.

Four turnpike commissioners are chosen by the governor, subject to state senate confirmation. The fifth commissioner is the state transportation secretary.

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