10 charged in PennDOT overbilling, kickback scheme

Top row, from left: Christopher Lauch, Brandon Grosso and Frank DiMichelle. Middle row, from left: Generoso Palmieri, John Cavanaugh and John Laspada. Bottom row, from right: Joseph DiSimone, William Rosetti and Alex Morrone.
Top row, from left: Christopher Lauch, Brandon Grosso and Frank DiMichelle. Middle row, from left: Generoso Palmieri, John Cavanaugh and John Laspada. Bottom row, from right: Joseph DiSimone, William Rosetti and Alex Morrone. Submitted photos

BRIDGEPORT >> Corruption charges were filed against two PennDOT administrators and eight former inspectors accused of bilking Pennsylvania taxpayers out of more than $1 million by defrauding the department’s Highway Occupancy Program), which oversees permits and inspections for roadwork on the commonwealth’s interstates, U.S. routes and state highways.

A grand jury returned the indictments after hearing evidence from a joint investigation conducted by the offices of the Pennsylvania Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General, detailing rampant overbilling, kickbacks and other fraudulent activity in District 6, which consists of Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties, between June 2010 and April 2013.

“The citizens of Pennsylvania expect state employees and contractors to perform the work they are paid to do,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said. “Those who accept kickbacks and falsify documents are stealing from taxpayers. My office will continue to uncover and diligently pursue public corruption across the commonwealth.”

According to prosecutors, the Highway Occupancy Program inspectors were paid in excess of $500,000 for work that was never done, and consulting firms — Construction Methods and Coordination Inc., and CZOP Spector Inc. — received more than $700,000 for fraudulent overtime billing.

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Former District 6 permits manager Alex Morrone, 50, of Norristown; former Philadelphia permits manager William Rosetti, 36, of Philadelphia; former PennDOT inspector Generoso Palmieri, 60, of Glenside; and former consultant inspectors John Cavanaugh, 61, of Philadelphia, Joseph DiSimone, 34, of Philadelphia, John Laspada, 40, of Philadelphia, Brandon Grosso, 33, of Boothwyn, Chris Lauch, 50, of Dover, Del., and David Betzner, 72, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., were charged with corruption, conspiracy, theft by unlawful taking, theft by deception, bribery and tampering with public records.

Another former PennDOT inspector, 49-year-old Frank DiMichele of Norristown, faces all but the bribery charge. Morrone faces an additional charge of receiving stolen property.

The maximum sentence for conviction on the three first-degree felony charges of corruption, conspiracy and theft by unlawful taking is 60 years in prison.

The charges stem from an Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation probe into nepotism and cronyism in the district following the July arrests of contractor and CZOP owner Thanh Nguyen and inspector Robert Slamon. Nguyen allegedly pocketed $3.6 million from PennDOT through various fraudulent practices and paid Slamon to falsify records and look the other way.

In March 2013, a whistleblower informed investigators of a much more far-reaching conspiracy, whereby the inspectors — some of whom were unqualified and inexperienced relatives and friends of administrators — obtained jobs through false pretenses and were allowed and sometimes encouraged to engage in fraudulent billing practices in exchange for illegal remuneration.

The grand jury heard testimony that inspectors billed for standard and overtime work that was never performed and overbilled for mileage and inspections, some of which they rarely, if ever, showed up to.

Among other allegations, the grand jury presentment states that Morrone billed PennDOT for work he paid inspectors to do at his home and at the home of his mother, and Lauch was allegedly laid off for falling behind in “kickback” payments to Rosetti.

District Judge James Gallagher advised the defendants of their rights and scheduled preliminary hearings for Dec. 29 at 9:30 a.m. Despite the prosecution’s request for $50,000 unsecured bail for each of the defendants, Gallagher set bail at $200,000, citing the seriousness of the felony charges. All but one of the defendants, Betzner, came before the judge Wednesday. Officials from the Attorney General’s office said he is expected to travel from Florida to turn himself in Friday.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Chief Deputy Attorney General Erik Olson, expressed gratitude for the diligence of investigators and the cooperation of PennDOT personnel. Olsen also hinted that there may be more prosecutions to come.

“This is a piece of a much larger ongoing investigation. An investigation which remains very active. In fact, in the last few months or so (it’s) gained momentum,” Olsen said. “In this case, every door we’ve opened has led to at least two or three other doors, and we are nowhere close to being done.”

Olsen said the firms involved “profited immensely” from the fraud but declined to speculate on whether the firms themselves will be targeted for future prosecution. Olsen also revealed that the whistleblower who alerted the investigators to the conspiracy was also involved in criminal wrongdoing but would not comment on the possibility of his or her immunity from prosecution, citing the ongoing investigation.