Turnpike Commission Starts Internal Investigation

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

BEREA, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio Turnpike Commission has started an internal ethics investigation after a state report found widespread acceptance of gifts and favors by commission staff.

On Monday, the commission met for the first time since Gino Zomparelli resigned as executive director of the 241-mile Ohio Turnpike. Zomparelli quit Thursday just hours after Gov. Bob Taft said he should resign or be fired over charges that he and other agency officials took gifts from contractors.

The commission on Monday created a search committee to find Zomparelli's replacement. Jack Marchbanks, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation's central district, was appointed to serve as interim executive director.

"This journey to greater public confidence is going to require reforms," Marchbanks said. He said "there may be some other people that may leave the turnpike," but he would not comment on what staff may be fired or disciplined.

Marchbanks said he has no interest in becoming the permanent executive director and hopes to end his service to the turnpike by the end of the year.

The commission on Monday created a temporary ethics committee to review the state report and propose new policies. The commission also adopted an interim policy barring all staff from accepting any gifts or gratuities from contractors doing work with the agency.

Commission Chairman Tim Greenwood noted that the usual standard for public employees is that they should not accept anything in excess of a "nominal" value such as a meal. He said the interim policy will be more strict and will "call a time out" to accepting anything from a contractor.

A report released last week by Inspector General Tom Charles found more than 170 instances of employees accepting meals, golf outings, professional sports tickets and luxury seats from contractors doing business with the commission. Agency employees accepted gifts from contractors so often it became part of the agency's culture, the report said.

The report found no evidence that firms received any benefit in return for such gifts. Charles started the investigation after receiving a four-page anonymous letter from turnpike employees last year that raised several allegations of wrongdoing, including the acceptance of gifts.

Greenwood said he has seen no evidence of a culture of poor ethics as suggested by the state report, but said that is what the turnpike commission's new ethics panel will review.

"There may be another side to the story on some of these things," he said. "What we have to do is do due diligence to make sure there is no impropriety and that there is a policy in place to prevent the appearance of any impropriety in the future."

State Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, said Monday he is drafting legislation that would dissolve the commission and place its duties under ODOT.

Meanwhile, the commission appears to have resolved a labor dispute with the Teamsters union.

Teamsters Local 436, representing toll collectors and maintenance workers on the turnpike, voted last month to strike if it could not agree to a new contract with the commission.

Commission General Counsel Thomas Amato said Monday that negotiators have reached a tentative deal on a new contract, but he would not provide details on the agreement, which has not been voted on yet by union members.

Local President Gary Tiboni was not available Monday to comment on the contract talks.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)