Governor Demands Resignation Of Turnpike Director

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Gov. Bob Taft on Thursday demanded the resignation of the Ohio Turnpike Commission's executive director, saying Gino Zomparelli had fallen short of state ethics laws.

Citing the findings of an inspector general's report, Taft urged the seven-member commission to "immediately seek" Zomparelli's resignation and to fire him if he doesn't resign.

Inspector General Tom Charles found several instances of wrongdoing at the agency that operates the 241-mile Ohio Turnpike, including a "culture" of accepting gifts from companies doing business with the commission.

"I would not tolerate these actions by a person reporting directly to me; nor do I believe you should tolerate the reported actions of" Zomparelli and other staff, Taft said.

Taft (pictured, above) urged the commission to review the conduct of other commission officials and to consider discipline against them, including firing.

Charles found more than 170 instances of employees accepting meals, golf outings, sports tickets and luxury seats at professional sports games from contractors doing business with the commission.

The tickets were for Cleveland Indians, Browns and Cavaliers and Pittsburgh Pirates games, the 27-page report said.

The "free flow of gratuities" to commission employees "is something that has been an acceptable practice for an extended period of time," the report said.

For example, engineering firm HNTB Corp. of Kansas City, Mo., treated Zomparelli and other commission officials to meals, golf outings and other entertainment at least 21 times between January 1999 and Dec. 31, 2001, according to the report.

HNTB Corp. did $2.8 million in business with the commission during that time, the report said.

HNTB spokesman Jim Riley would not comment except to say the company cooperated fully with the investigation.

The commission is "one of our major clients and always will be," Riley said.

The report also said commission lobbyist Patrick Patton worked more than 150 days for the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund Board while on commission time. He also billed the OPF more than $8,000 for mileage expenses he incurred while driving a turnpike commission car to OPF meetings, the report said.

The report found no evidence that firms received any benefit in return for such gifts.

Republican Sen. Jeffry Armbruster of North Ridgeville, a non-voting legislative member of the commission, wrote to commission chairman Tim Greenwood on Wednesday to recommend an overhaul of the agency's management structure and employee policies.

Also Wednesday, the top-ranking Senate Democrat said the commission should be merged with the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Commission officials have refused to comment on the report, released Tuesday. A message was left with Greenwood on Thursday seeking comment.

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