Ohio Turnpike Director Resigns At Governor's Request

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, AP Statehouse Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The Ohio Turnpike director quit hours after Gov. Bob Taft said he should resign or be fired over charges that he and other agency officials took gifts from contractors.

Gino Zomparelli, the three-year executive director of the Ohio Turnpike Commission, said in a letter Thursday to the commission chairman that top state officials "unfairly portrayed my performance."

Statements and allegations "were made and continue to be made without my ever having been given the opportunity to respond and have made it impossible for me to continue in my position as Executive Director," Zomparelli said in the letter to chairman Tim Greenwood.

A report released Tuesday by the state's watchdog 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.

Greenwood said the commission will consider how to continue Monday when the board meets. He declined comment on the report or Zomparelli's resignation, saying only that "a lot of positive things have taken place" under Zomparelli's leadership.

Zomparelli was promoted from general counsel of the Turnpike to executive director on Aug. 1, 1999, replacing retiring director Alan Plain. Zomparelli was paid $150,230 a year. He did not return a message left at his home Thursday night.

Before he resigned Thursday, Taft urged the seven-member commission to "immediately seek" his resignation and to fire him if he didn't step down.

"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, Taft said.

Taft spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey said after Zomparelli's resignation that the governor was pleased to close the matter.

"The governor wants to restore public confidence in the Turnpike Commission," she said.

Taft also urged the commission to review the conduct of other commission officials and to consider discipline against them, including firing.

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. 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.

Public officials found guilty of a pattern of accepting gifts of substantial value from companies doing business with the state could face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Charles said he forwarded the report to prosecutors.

Tim Hagan, the Democratic candidate for governor, on Thursday criticized Taft for not seeking Greenwood's resignation as well. Hagan said the commission should be dissolved and operations of the 241-mile turnpike should be handed over to the Ohio Department of Transportation.

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