Following up on my post yesterday, the "he said-she said" discussion is over. Remember that yesterday, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission representativesâ€”including executive director Joseph Brimmeierâ€”issued strong statements denying that the FBI had visited their offices and seized computer equipment and records. Here's what Brimmeier said yesterday afternoon (emphasis mine):
Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier today told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that "It never happened. The FBI did not visit any turnpike offices or confiscate any equipment belonging to the turnpike. (Toll Roads News) has a long history of sloppy or inaccurate reporting that reflects their efforts to malign the Pennsylvania Turnpike and its over 2,200 employees. Today they crossed the line between sloppy and reckless. The posting is false."
Just a few hours later though, the PTC changed their tune significantly. Per John Micek at The Morning Call:
In a brief telephone interview, [Turnpike] commission spokesman Bill Capone told us that the FBI is, indeed, investigating goings-on at the Valley Forge interchange. But that's because the Commission voluntarily called in the Feds after its own Office of Inspector General determined that the matter was too big for them to tackle on their own.
"These irregularities were to us first, and we, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, contacted the FBI and asked them to get involved in it," Capone said this evening."
Capone said the Turnpike's OIG was put onto the matter after the agency "got a tip that something was going on with the Valley Forge widening project."
From a basic PR standpoint, wouldn't that have been a better statement to release right off the bat? Instead PTC played the deny-then-confirm game, which tends to make people question the details of the confirmation. When the director says, "The FBI did not visit any turnpike offices..." and then a few hours later the spokesman says that indeed the FBI did visit (for whatever reason), it starts to smell even fishier. With a flip-flop like that, how much faith is one supposed to have about the veracity of any statements that follow?
Even if this all turns out to be all smoke and no fire, the sheer hubris of the PTC is stunning. I'd say they owe Peter Samuel an apology for trying to throw him completely under the bus, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting.
On a related note, Brad Bumsted at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review confirms today that rumors of a state grand jury investigation of the PTC (for corruption, patronage, shady contracting, etc.; fairly stock stuff for the PTC) are indeed true:
A statewide grand jury based in Pittsburgh is investigating patronage and contracts at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
The involvement of Attorney General Tom Corbett's office surfaced Wednesday after reports that the FBI has been investigating matters at the agency. [...]
"It's an investigation we launched internally ourselves," [PTC spokesman Bill] Capone said. "It's an ongoing investigation."
Asked about the statewide grand jury investigation by Corbett, Capone said: "I have heard that unofficially. Officially, I have not been made aware of it."
Officials say the state investigation is looking at alleged "pay-to-play" contracts involving campaign contributions given by contractors or solicited from them.
I know that the scandalous aspects of this will be the primary media focus, but to me the larger issue at play is that the entire future of Pennsylvania's transportation system is now effectively in the hands of the PTC, thanks to the ill-conceived Act 44 a few years ago. This means Pennsylvanians are forced to trust that the corrupt PTC will act in citizens' best interests. Good luck on that.
As I said yesterday, the $12.8 billion privatization offer last year would have taken the candy away from the bad guys, but state legislators had their blinders on. In retrospect, given today's markets that would have likely been the smartest move they could have made. I'd bet that some wish they could have a mulligan on that now.