Former school board president appears before judge

Rebecca Acosta indicted in federal corruption case

PHILADELPHIA - A former Reading School Board president and one-time candidate for magisterial district judge made her first court appearance after being indicted in a federal corruption case that sent her husband to prison.

Rebecca Acosta went before a federal judge in Philadelphia on Thursday and pleaded not guilty to two counts of bribery, one count of mail fraud, one count of wire fraud, and conspiracy.

The judge ordered Acosta not to talk to her husband, former Reading City Council President Francis Acosta, about the case.

Rebecca Acosta, 40, hesitated and then replied, "I understand that... but we're married."

Francis Acosta pleaded guilty to his role in the case, having been accused of accepting an $1,800 donation for his wife's campaign for judge as a bribe from then-Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer, who wanted Francis Acosta, then council president, to seek a repeal of the city's ethics code, which caps individual campaign contributions to people running for city office at $2,600.

At the time, Spencer was running as an incumbent in the Democratic primary election. He would go on to lose the race to now-Mayor Wally Scott.

"In an astounding act of irony, former Mayor Spencer bribed the president of City Council to introduce legislation repealing a Reading anti-corruption statute," said Acting U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen.

Rebecca Acosta is also accused of obtaining inside information about a Reading School District construction project. It is alleged that Spencer 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.

Spencer and Hickey were also indicted Wednesday. Spencer, 70, was charged with nine counts of bribery, one count of honest services wire fraud, and conspiracy; Hickey, 54, of Allentown, was charged with one count of bribery, one count of mail fraud, one count of wire fraud, and conspiracy.

"This years-long investigation illuminated troubling conduct for which all of those indicted must now answer," said Michael Harpster, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia division. "The FBI is committed to fighting public corruption, which erodes the trust of 'we the people' and cheapens our cherished democracy."

For his role in the case, Francis Acosta has served nearly 17 months of his two-year sentence at a federal prison in McKean County. He may serve as a witness for the defense, according to Rebecca Acosta's attorney, who called her indictment "nonsense on stilts."

In addition to not talking with her husband about the case, Rebecca Acosta was also ordered by the judge Thursday to undergo a drug test and to continue mental health treatment. She was released on her own recognizance.

Spencer and Hickey are due to appear in federal court next Tuesday.

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