Something stinks in Cambria County politics.
For Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason, that stink is the smell of money.
Since Republicans took back the majority on the County Board of Commissioners, three county insurance contracts have gone to Chairman Gleason’s insurance firm, and now Gleason and his political backers are potential investors in a private label wine plan orchestrated by his hand-picked County Commissioner in Cambria County.
Gleason worked hard to take back the Cambria County courthouse for the PA GOP in 2011. With direct control over the PA Republican Party’s “Chairman’s Fund,” Gleason directed close to $200,000 in mailers and media expenditures to make sure that Republicans Mark Wissinger, a former commissioner, and Doug Lengenfelder, a retired Air Force colonel, took the majority seats.
When Legenfelder became President Commissioner, contracts began to be steered Gleason’s way. Arthur J. Gallagher & Co is the insurance brokerage and risk management services firm that acquired The Gleason Agency and its affiliate, Gleason Financial, in 2011.
Under the buyout plan, Gleason continued to operate his location in Johnstown.
As soon as the first insurance policy to come up for renewal was presented to Commissioners Legenfelder and Wissinger, they named Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services as the county’s broker instead of continuing with the Ebensburg Insurance Agency.
When Gallagher was appointed to act as county healthcare consultant, Minority Commissioner Thomas Chernisky pointed out that “the healthcare committee had, for years, done exactly what Gallagher was now being contracted to do, in-house, at no cost to the county.”
Most recently, Legenfelder and Wissinger voted to award the workers compensation insurance program to Gleason’s company.
All this was good news for the Chairman, whose 2011 investment in Legenfelder and Wissinger paid off not just politically, but financially.
Now, Gleason and Legenfelder look to be diversifying their portfolio. Their next move: the wine business.
In 2012, Commissioner Legenfelder began pitching the idea of creating a free trade zone at the Murtha Airport. According to Legenfelder the first use would be shipping in Argentine wines to be bottled at the airport by a small Somerset winery, Glades Pike.
Legenfelder had plans to visit Argentina with Rob Gleason and his wife after the 2012 elections but those plans were postponed until last week.
In 2013, Legenfelder continued to push the free trade zone idea, again with the wine scheme as the lead project. Cambria County sources are now saying that Legenfelder has morphed his original scheme into a plan to create an imported private label.
In February, Chairman Gleason, Commissioner Legenfelder, and Rex McQuaide left for Argentina with their spouses.
Gleason was brought along as a potential investor.
Rex McQuaide and his brother Rick are longtime GOP operatives and donors with strong connections to Gleason.
Sources claim that an attorney from the Glades Pike winery was also joining the trip, and the Cambria contingent included around 15 people.
They are visiting six of the top wineries in Argentina, and portions of the trip are being charged to Cambria County taxpayers through the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority.
On February 12th, the Cambria County Airport authority awarded a $13,272.44 contract to José E. Latour of Miami to travel with the contingent to Argentina and to pay the costs of Mr. Latour’s travel.
A Cambria County source says that Latour “has done zero Free Trade Zones” and “Latour’s specialty is EB5 programs.”
A different Cambria County source says that Commissioner Legenfelder has contacted the PLCB about the private label, though it is unclear if the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board was represented on the trip to Argentina.
Most recently, PLCB Executive Joe Conti stepped down “for conflicting accounts he and [P]LCB marketing director Jim Short gave when the Tribune-Review raised questions about how TableLeaf wines, one of the agency’s eight in-house brands, were brought to market and who was involved in the decision-making process.”
Conti is a former Bucks County Republican state representative and state senator.
From the Tribune-Review:
LCB Chairman Joseph “Skip” Brion of Chester County, whose term began after nearly all the in-house brands had been approved, said in October that he started an internal investigation into how the brands were developed. Brion has not commented on his findings.
Brion was nominated to the PLCB by Governor Tom Corbett and served as chairman of the Republican Committee of Chester County.
On February 14th, the Vice Chair of the PA GOP, Joyce Haas, sent out an email to supporters detailing the benefits of privatizing state spirit sales. Keystone Politics has obtained a copy of that email, excerpted below:
I wanted to share with you an article I wrote while thinking about Governor Corbett’s plan to get Pennsylvania out of the business of selling alcohol.
Will you read it and forward it to a friend?
I’m sure you agree that our current system is not only inconvenient; it doesn’t make any sense. That’s exactly why Governor Corbett’s plan is so important: it’s commonsense. No more having to go to three different stores for three different products. Beer and wine in grocery stores. And the best part? Selling the state stores will create $1 billion in revenue that we can invest in public education.
It looks like some of the revenue created would also go directly to Chairman Gleason, should he go through with backing the Argentinian private label with Commissioner Legenfelder.
Taken together, it is beginning to look like Chairman Gleason is using his political connections to enrich himself and his party loyalists. Between the insurance contracts with the county, trips to Argentina with his political backers, and a move for a private label that he stands to benefit from, something stinks.