Federal prosecutors have unsealed charges against the mayor of Allentown, the former mayor of Reading and others allegedly involved in a wide-ranging bribery scheme. The announcement concluded a years-long investigation that has cast shadows over two of Pennsylvania’s largest cities.
Federal officials have indicted Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and associates Scott Allison and James Hickey in a 55-count indictment after Pawlowski allegedly accepted more than $150,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for official acts. In a separate indictment, authorities charge former Mayor of Reading Vaughn Spencer and two others, Rebecca Acosta and James Hickey, on 18 charges, including bribery and fraud, for steering city work to individuals who pumped thousands into Spencer’s campaign coffers.
Acting U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen announced the charges in Philadelphia on Wednesday alongside a row of FBI agents.
“Palowsky and Spencer essentially put a for-sale sign up in front of City Hall, in Reading and in Allentown, to sell their office, and their services to the highest bidder,” Lappen said.
The court documents chronicle a culture of corruption in the form of paperwork trails and email chains illustrating how ingrained the alleged abuses were.
Prosecutors said Allentown and Reading city officials sold their offices for political contributions in an effort to fuel their political ambitions. In Pawlowski’s case, donations were used in his unsuccessful bids for U.S. Senator and governor of Pennsylvania.
Authorities say the people who often scored the most sought-after contracts were showering the city leaders with campaign cash. To Acting U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen, this arrangement is not business as usual, but rather a serious federal crime.
“This type of culture destroys the respect that our citizens have, and are entitled to have for our public officials, and it contributes to the cynicism that is, sadly, so common today about our government and our government officials,” Lappen said.
Acting United States Attorney Louis D. Lappen outlines public corruption charges against the Allentown Mayor Edwin Pawlowski and former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
People who gave Pawlowski donations ended up landing contracts for city pool renovations, tax collection and computer security improvements.
To cover up his crimes, Pawlowski allegedly deleted emails with donors and told his campaign operatives to do the same. He also “swept” his offices for recording devices, since he thought he was being bugged by the feds, said FBI Special Agent Michael Harpster.
“These alleged allegations pull at and tear at the very fabric of what makes up our democracy. It destroys the values and ideals of every citizen to be represented in an equal fashion,” Harpster said.
In Reading, the feds said former Mayor Spencer steered lucrative engineering contracts to firms that gave him a steady stream of campaign contributions.
Spencer also allegedly bribed the president of Reading’s City Council to repeal a local anti-corruption law capping the amount individuals could give to political candidates.
“This type of a statute interfered with the mayor of Reading’s desire to run a pay-to-play system,” said Lappen, who called that “an astounding, astounding act of irony.”
Both Pawlowski and Spencer have denied they did anything wrong and are planning to fight the charges at trial.
Pawlowski said he will not be stepping down as mayor, nor will he stop campaigning for a fourth term as mayor of Allentown.