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New Pa. Turnpike head says he's ready to face down corruption

HARRISBURG - The new chief executive of the troubled Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission says he's glad a scathing grand jury report is finally out, despite its damning allegations of political corruption and influence-peddling within the agency.

Mark P. Compton: “No one crosses that line again.”
Mark P. Compton: “No one crosses that line again.”Read more

HARRISBURG - The new chief executive of the troubled Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission says he's glad a scathing grand jury report is finally out, despite its damning allegations of political corruption and influence-peddling within the agency.

"We all knew it was coming, so there is limited relief that it's here," Mark P. Compton said in his office overlooking the toll road, outside Harrisburg. "Now we can deal with it."

Supplied with the 85-page report, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane earlier this month filed criminal charges against eight men, including former State Sen. Robert Mellow (D., Lackawanna) and one of Compton's predecessors, former Turnpike chief executive Joseph Brimmeier.

The grand jury said top turnpike officials solicited contractors for campaign contributions to favored politicians, including then-Gov. Ed Rendell, and took gifts of international travel, sports events, and lavish meals. In return, the contributors' companies received multimillion-dollar contracts, even when other bidders were less expensive and more qualified, the report said.

Compton inherited the hot seat at the turnpike on Feb. 1, after serving in the Corbett administration as a deputy secretary of transportation, overseeing eight PennDot administrative bureaus.

Compton, 39, of Manheim Township, is well-versed in Pennsylvania politics, as a former aide to Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and Republican U.S. Rep. William Clinger and a dependable financial contributor to GOP candidates. Before his PennDot job, he was director of government relations for construction contractor American Infrastructure Co., based in Montgomery County.

He says he understands the traditional role of politics at the Turnpike Commission: Governors appoint party loyalists to four of the five commissioner posts (the fifth is the secretary of transportation), and political patronage is routine in filling jobs, from toll collectors to bond lawyers.

"I understand the selection of the commissioners is not done out of the phone book," he says.

But he says that is different from shaking down contractors for campaign donations, paying off undeserving companies with multimillion-dollar contracts, and taking cash and gifts from contractors.

"No one crosses that line again," he promised. "We have to have firewalls in place to see it never happens again."

Compton says that the turnpike's new chief compliance officer, former FBI Agent David Gentile, will lead an internal review of contracts, and that an advisory panel will review and critique business practices to erect those firewalls.

Many low-level opportunities for patronage jobs will disappear over the next five years as the turnpike does away with its 400 human toll-takers, replacing them with an all-electronic toll system.

The high-end patronage, such as turnpike work handed out to law firms and engineers, will be tougher for Compton to police to the extent that he wants to.

"No one's immune from that review. They will all be under review," he vowed.

But he acknowledged that "we're all in the relationship business."

"My job is making sure they're not improper relationships," he said.

He said turnpike employees will be encouraged to report illegal or improper activities. That has not always been the case: In announcing the grand-jury report, State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan said turnpike employees were demoted, isolated, or fired for trying to expose improper activities.

Even as Compton urges current turnpike employees to feel free to blow the whistle, the turnpike continues to fight in court with previous whistleblowers who claim they were fired for standing up to corrupt bosses.

"We're still in the process of reviewing those," Compton said.

In addition to the fallout from the grand-jury report and the criminal charges, Compton must deal with financial woes at the turnpike.

The turnpike is more than $7 billion in debt, and tolls are being raised every year to keep the rising deficit from bankrupting the agency.

Required by a 2007 state law to provide billions of dollars for statewide road and bridge repairs and transit operations, the turnpike is spending more money each year than it makes - despite toll increases that have doubled the cost to travel the turnpike over the last 10 years.

That law, Act 44, requires the turnpike to make those payments until 2057, but Gov. Corbett is proposing to end that requirement in 10 years.

The rising tolls and deficits "concern me already," Compton said, and if the legislature doesn't approve the demise of Act 44 payments, "my sleepless nights will continue."

The turnpike will have to cut its construction plans to save money, if the Act 44 payments do not end, Compton said.

Another way to save money is to share more services and equipment with PennDot, Compton said, but he balked at proposals to merge the two highway agencies.

"Act 44 monetized the turnpike," Compton said, noting that the 2007 decision to milk the cash cow requires the political will to raise tolls every year.

"If it was folded into PennDot, I think the legislature would have to approve those toll changes, and I'm not sure they would," he said.

Compton acknowledged the skepticism that accompanies him into office as he promises to reform an agency long seen as reform-resistant.

"I understand it's just words now," he said. "But the appetite for this change is there. People are anxious for this, and all eyes are watching us."

"So, I just ask you to come back in a year and see if we've done what we say."