Former Reading mayor pleads not guilty in 'pay to play' case

Vaughn Spencer charged with 9 bribery counts

PHILADELPHIA - Former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer has admitted no wrongdoing in an alleged case of "pay-to-play" politics that could put him behind bars for the rest of his life if he's convicted.

Spencer pleaded not guilty during a hearing before a federal judge in Philadelphia on Tuesday, the former mayor's first court appearance since the U.S. attorney unsealed an indictment last Wednesday, charging him with nine counts of bribery and a single count each of honest services wire fraud and conspiracy.

Spencer, who will remain free until his trial, plans to fight the charges against him, according to his attorney, Geoffrey Johnson.

"[I'm] prohibited from talking about defense in this case, talking about our defense in the case, but in this case, Mike Fleck's conduct in history speaks for itself," Johnson said.

Fleck is Spencer's former campaign manager who pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery in the case.

As for Spencer, who was using a walker for his recovery from recent leg surgery, his only responses to WFMZ's Jamie Stover's questions were, "No comment."

Prosecutors said Spencer, a Democrat, made clear to businesses and individuals that city contracts would be withheld if they didn't provide sufficient campaign contributions.

A two-year investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors found that Spencer offered an $1,800 bribe through then-Reading City Council President Francis Acosta to the campaign of Acosta's wife, former Reading School Board President Rebecca Acosta, who was running for district judge, according to the indictment.

In return, officials said Spencer wanted Francis Acosta to seek city council's repeal of an anti-pay-to-play ethics ordinance that capped at $2,600 individual campaign contributions to people running for city office.

At the time, Spencer was seeking a second term as mayor, however, he would eventually lose the Democratic primary election to Wally Scott, the city's current mayor.

Rebecca Acosta is also accused of obtaining inside information about a Reading School District construction project. Spencer allegedly asked her for the information so it could be passed along to a business consultant named James Hickey.

In exchange, Rebecca Acosta would receive a campaign contribution from Hickey's engineering firm for her 2015 judicial race, officials said.

Francis Acosta, who admitted in August 2015 to his role in the case, is currently serving a two-year prison sentence; his wife, Rebecca Acosta, was also indicted last week. She pleaded not guilty to two counts of bribery, and one count each of mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy, during her first court appearance on Thursday.

Hickey, who was charged with one count each of bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy, was also due to appear in court for the first time Tuesday.

Ed Pawlowski, the mayor of Allentown, pleaded not guilty to similar charges last week.

Each bribery charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to federal prosecutors.

As he awaits trial, Spencer is limited to where he can travel as a condition of his release. He is also not allowed to communicate with anyone involved in the case.

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