Contractor-Aided Turnpike Parties Trouble Official

CLEVELAND (AP) - Ohio Turnpike employees apparently arranged at least four big holiday or retirement parties, some with more than 500 people, with the help of contractors who do business with the toll road.

Invitations to buy hundreds of seats at each of parties between 1998 and January 2001 went to construction companies, engineering firms and testing laboratories, The Plain Dealer reported Monday.

"More contractors attended the events than turnpike employees," state investigators wrote in notes from their interview with a turnpike secretary who dealt with the invitations.

Ohio Inspector General Tom Charles, who criticized turnpike executives earlier this month for accepting gifts and meals from contractors, said the parties troubled him.

"It's inappropriate that they would solicit contractors for any kind of event," Charles said. "It goes to the very culture we have been talking about."

Records that Charles collected during a yearlong investigation of the turnpike show that the turnpike had thrown at least four dinner parties since December 1998 at a combined cost of more than $40,000.

Turnpike officials said they could not remember ticket prices charged to contractors and did not keep records to account for the money, the newspaper said.

Turnpike spokeswoman Lauren Hakos said the parties had been coordinated by a turnpike executive who died in March, one year after retiring.

When questioned by investigators in June, then-Executive Director Gino Zomparelli said turnpike employees independently organized the parties.

Zomparelli resigned this month after the inspector general accused him of accepting gifts from contractors.

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