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January 23, 2013 | By | Posted in WatchBlog

WATCHBLOG: Turnpike chief got new $40K vehicle one week before tolls increased again

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – Next time you stop to pay a toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, remember how those dollars are being spent.

Following on the heels of an audit report revealing that the Turnpike Commission purchased new vehicles for the members of the five member panel that governs the agency, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday that commission chairman William Lieberman got a brand new Jeep Cherokee last month at a cost of about $40,000.

He was given the new car exactly nine days before the turnpike increased tolls on motorists for the fifth consecutive year.

Here’s what the Inky’s Paul Nussbaum uncovered:

Lieberman, a Pittsburgh insurance executive, received the 2013 Grand Cherokee on Dec. 28 to replace a 2012 Grand Cherokee that he had received a year earlier. That one cost turnpike users $38,448.

The year-old Cherokee was handed down to fellow Commissioner Pasquale “Pat” Deon, a Bucks County restaurateur and beer distributor (and SEPTA board chairman), to replace his turnpike-issued 2008 Dodge Magnum…

…A free car, for personal as well as official use, is a perk of being one of four turnpike commissioners, along with a $26,000 salary ($28,500 for Lieberman as chairman), a no-limit expense account, and a free pass on all tolls…

…By contrast, the commissioners of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority get no free cars, no salaries, no free passes for tolls, and no reimbursement for using their own vehicles, NJTA spokesman Thomas Feeney said.

It’s worth noting that a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a base value of about $27,500, according to Edmunds.com, an automotive retail website.  So it’s a safe bet that Lieberman’s new ride is not the economy package.

But that should not be much of a surprise.

That recent audit by Auditor General Jack Wagner found the turnpike spent more than $400,000 on new vehicles for commissioners between Jan. 2007 and Aug. 2011.  The commissioners were allowed to use their nearly limitless expense account to cover the cost of fuel and maintenance for those vehicles as well.

In the scathing audit report, auditors said they could find “no convincing reason” for commissioners to be allowed to use commission-purchased vehicles for personal use.

Meanwhile, tolls have been hiked five years in a row and the turnpike’s debt has increased by 200 percent since 2007 – and 42 cents of every toll dollar is put towards that debt.

Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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