Authorities arrested a longtime Upland Borough councilman Wednesday after he allegedly plotted with a technology firm owner to install overpriced security equipment in the borough building in a kickback scheme that Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan said helped both men fraudulently pocket potentially hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Edward M. Mitchell, 73, who was elected in 2008 and served as borough council president from 2009 through last January, turned himself in to police at the Delaware County Courthouse to face felony charges of theft, conspiracy and violations of state wiretap, ethics and conflict of interest laws. Also arrested on similar charges was Thomas Herman Patrick Willard, 61, who owns Logan Technology Solutions of Downingtown.
The details of the case — including secret microphones, covert cameras and a police chief who allegedly obeyed orders to ignore something suspicious — seem straight out of a blockbuster legal thriller.
It started in 2009, Whelan said, when Mitchell hired Willard to install fire alarms and other security systems in the borough. The relationship quickly became “conspiratorial,” with Willard allegedly inflating the prices — by 30 to 50 percent — of equipment he installed and Mitchell allegedly taking 10 to 15 percent in cash kickbacks for anything Willard billed the borough, Whelan said.
In one case, Willard billed twice for four police dash cameras the borough still has not received, Whelan said. And Mitchell allegedly directed Willard to keep all invoices under $10,000 to evade the bidding process required by state law.
Most bizarrely, Mitchell directed Willard to secretly mount microphones and hide cameras in borough council chambers and the secretary’s office for reasons he hasn’t explained and investigators haven’t yet deduced, Whelan said. The tiny mics were so powerful they could pick up voices in adjacent rooms, Whelan added. Investigators later listening to the recordings even heard themselves conducting an investigation in the borough building, he said.
That’s how the scheme eventually came to light, Whelan said. Upland Mayor Michael Ciach discovered a covert camera system disguised as motion sensors and alerted a county detective, Whelan said.
Investigators figured that added up to $88,000 to $133,000 in profits for Mitchell and untold thousands more for Willard, Whelan said.
In all, Willard’s company billed the borough $887,224 from October 2009 through December 2015, Whelan said. The money has not been recovered.
As part of their probe, investigators questioned former Upland Police Chief Nelson Ocasio, whom Whelan said obeyed Mitchell’s request not to investigate when he learned the borough had paid for the undelivered dash cams Willard reported as “missing.” Ocasio has not been charged.
The case remains under investigation.
“We look at elected officials as individuals that should be held to a higher standard of conduct,” Whelan said during an afternoon news conference at the county courthouse in Media. “So it’s no wonder I present this to you with disgust and outrage that an elected official would go to this length in order to benefit himself for pecuniary gain … It’s just a flagrant violation of the trust that the people of Upland and Delaware County place in an elected official.”
Both Mitchell and Willard left the courthouse Wednesday afternoon in handcuffs on their way to arraignment. Neither answered reporters’ questions. Attorney John Flannery, who represents Mitchell, told reporters gathered outside that the councilman is not guilty.
“He served Upland Borough honorably. He’s a veteran. He denies any and all allegations made against him, and he’s looking forward to his day in court,” Flannery said.
Upland, a borough of 3,200 just off the Interstate 95 corridor, has had plenty of political drama in the past year, including another borough council president’s arrest in February. Charges were withdrawn a day later in an episode that prompted the council to oust Ocasio.