Allentown pay-to-play scandal muddies reputation of Lehigh Valley politics
HARRISBURG — On the fifth floor of Allentown City Hall, photographs of more than 30 ex-mayors line a conference room wall and “none of them have been indicted,” says the vice president of City Council.
But Daryl Hendricks, a retired police captain elected to council in 2013, said that soon could change with Mayor Ed Pawlowski, based on his likeness in federal documents to “Public Official No. 3” tied to a pay-to-play scandal. Three former city officials and a developer have pleaded guilty.
“There is absolutely no doubt” Pawlowski fits the description of “Public Official No. 3” in the investigation into contracting practices, Hendricks said.
“I wouldn't even call it a secret,” said Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Allentown.
The Tribune-Review could not reach Pawlowski, mayor since 2006, or his attorney.
Until this burgeoning scandal, the city and the surrounding Lehigh Valley had a reputation for clean, bipartisan politics over decades, observers and officials say.
“This is the first we've seen anything like this,” said Don Cunningham, a former Lehigh County executive who heads an economic development corporation.
The federal investigation took a turn last month when the U.S. Attorney's Office requested documents including those of a waste-to-energy company, Delta Thermo Energy, and Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Marcel Groen, the attorney who negotiated for Delta.
“I can't tell you whether I have any legal exposure,” Groen said. “I can tell you I don't have any concern.”
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
Pawlowski, Groen and Delta Thermo have not been accused of wrongdoing.
The company, with Pawlowski's backing, obtained a city contract to build a plant that would burn municipal waste and sewage sludge to generate electricity. The idea drew considerable opposition before the contract ended in 2014 because the project lacked financing.
Pawlowski used Groen's law firm, Fox Rothschild, for various legal services.
“For someone to be connected to this widening investigation has to be a point of concern,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “Or it may be tangential. From this particular piece of information, we can't be confident of anything.”
Public officials charged
Allentown's controller, Mary Ellen Koval, resigned last week and pleaded guilty to honest services fraud, becoming the first elected official to plead in the corruption investigation. The city's former finance director, Gary Strathearn, pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. A former assistant city solicitor, Dale Wiles, pleaded guilty in December to withholding documents from the FBI.
Federal documents portray city employees as conspiring to steer contracts to campaign contributors or prospective donors for a public official seeking statewide office.
Pawlowski made an unsuccessful bid for governor in the 2014 Democratic primary. He raised money for an aborted U.S. Senate campaign last year.
Mike Fleck, Pawlowski's friend and political operative, wore a wire to record conversations for the FBI, The Morning Call of Allentown has reported.
Fleck was linked to former state Treasurer Rob McCord of Bryn Mawr, who pleaded guilty to federal extortion charges almost a year ago. Fleck worked briefly as a political consultant for McCord, who finished third in the Democratic primary for governor.
McCord admitted shaking down contractors for campaign money. Federal investigators gathered evidence through a wiretap.
He was not the last statewide officeholder charged last year.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane faces 12 criminal counts, including felony perjury, filed in August and September in Montgomery County. Prosecutors accuse her of leaking grand jury material to a newspaper and then lying under oath to try to cover her actions.
The two row officers are among dozens of state and local officials charged in public corruption investigations in Pennsylvania over the past five years.
Two House speakers, Democrat Bill DeWeese of Greene County and Republican John Perzel of Philadelphia, went to prison for theft of tax money for campaigns.
County and local officials were convicted in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties for taking bribes. Two judges were convicted in the nation's worst judicial scandal in 2011 for taking cash from the builder of a private detention center where they sent juvenile offenders, often without legal counsel, to fill beds. The judges collected more than $2.6 million in bribes.
‘We just want this done'
Pay-to-play cases such as that unfolding in Allentown “have been common practice in Pennsylvania for more than a decade,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “It goes back to the old political bosses who ran the state.”
That it's happening in Pennsylvania's third-largest city, with a population of about 118,000 and metro area of about 800,000, surprises some.
Allentown is about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
“The Lehigh Valley has always had a reputation for clean politics,” said Rep. Robert Freeman, an Easton Democrat and longtime member of the valley's House delegation. What's happening now “is very disconcerting.”
“The investigation has put city government into a complete whirlwind,” Borick said. “To have a series of people plead guilty, with possibly more coming, including the mayor, is earthshaking.”
The Allentown City Council is preparing a vote of no confidence with a resolution calling for Pawlowski's resignation.
Bernie O'Hare, a blogger who publishes Lehigh Valley Ramblings, is a former federal prosecutor who says he lost his license to alcoholism. O'Hare, of Nazareth, calls Pawlowski “Fed Ed” in his blog posts.
“(Pawlowski's) Facebook page is unreal,” as if there's no problem, O'Hare said.
Schlossberg, the House member from Allentown, credits Pawlowski with doing “fantastic work” on the city's behalf.
“It's been difficult to watch,” Schlossberg said of the scandal. “It feels, unfortunately, like the inevitable is going to happen.
“In the best interest of the city, we just want this done.”
Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.