FBI Probe

Allentown corruption trial and the jury's task ahead

Deliberations in pay-to-play case began Wednesday

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A federal grand jury in July 2017 handed down a 54-count indictment against Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. Federal investigators allege the four-term mayor had been trading favors and city contracts in exchange for campaign contributions.

Now after six weeks, the jury that’s been hearing the U.S. government’s case in Allentown is deliberating the allegations against Pawlowski and his co-defendant Scott Allinson. The FBI alleges that Allinson, an attorney in the Allentown office of Norris McLaughlin and Marcus, tried to funnel legal work to his firm in exchange for promises to raise money for Pawlowski’s aborted U.S. Senate campaign.

Lying to the FBI is a fairly simple allegation to understand. But what is the Hobbs Act and how exactly does one go about allegedly violating it?

Seth Weber is a retired federal prosecutor, who tried cases in the Eastern District for 26 years before his retirement. The Bucks County resident worked in Philadelphia before finishing his career as supervisor of the Allentown branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Weber discussed broadly the federal charges facing the mayor and Allinson and the burden of proof facing federal prosecutors.

Deliberations are set to resume 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

Conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, honest services fraud, federal program bribery and Travel Act bribery
Conspiracy is a “broad and sweeping” charge, and the most devastating count the mayor and Allinson face, according to Weber.

“Although you could face only five years, the crime is the agreement,” he said. “The mayor doesn’t have to do anything.”

Plainly put, conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to take some action in the furtherance of a crime.

“It’s the agreement that gets punished,” Weber said.

For example, two people planning to rob a gas station could each take certain steps in preparation with one person buying a gun and securing a getaway car, while the other buys masks and cases the place.

Even if they get cold feet and fail to rob the store, prosecutors could still make a conspiracy case against them, according to Weber.

In the case of the allegations against the mayor, it’s always difficult to prove what’s in someone’s mind, he said. But prosecutors have a host of people who have already pleaded guilty, some of whom have testified, Weber said.

“Are all these other people wrong and that there really was no crime?” he said. “It’s a lot get over for the mayor.”

Among the conspiracy allegations jurors are considering include bribery and defrauding the engineering, architectural and law firms not selected through what investigators say was a rigged bidding process.

Federal program bribery/soliciting and aiding and abetting
There are two types of federal program bribery: soliciting a bribe and receiving a bribe. This applies to someone asking for money in exchange for an official act.

Even if someone doesn’t get the money he or she requested, it’s still illegal to even ask when that person is not entitled to the money, Weber said.

Federal program bribery is difficult to prove, he said.

“It’s difficult to prove criminal intent in someone’s mind,” Weber said. “It’s difficult to show the explicit quid pro quo.”

A prosecutor needs to demonstrate a particular act, such as awarding a specific contract in exchange for a donation. But campaign contributions are not illegal and landing a contract or legal work somewhere down the road after making a contribution is not crime, Weber said.

An elected official can say that a company hasn’t landed a municipal contract in a while and note he or she received $5,000 toward a campaign, Weber said.

“That’s not a crime. That’s a coincidence,” he said.

It comes down to proving an explicit agreement and determining how explicit that agreement needs to be. A defendant needn’t say the words, “I’m asking for a bribe.” Weber said a prosecutor needs to show a clear understanding between two people in the furtherance of that illegal act.

“Criminals, when breaking the law, know they can’t say it out loud,” he said. “So, they eventually come to an understanding that everyone’s on the same page.”

In that instance, Weber said McMahon is doing a great job by repeatedly asking witnesses to point out in the thousands of hours of tapes collected by the FBI where the mayor explicitly asks for a bribe.

“A defense lawyer’s job is not to prove innocence, it’s to prove reasonable doubt,” Weber said.

Attempted Hobbs Act Extortion under color or official right and aiding and abetting
Named Congressman Sam Hobbs, the law was enacted in 1946, basically, to fight organized crime, according to Weber. State law covers robbery and threats to commit robbery, but no such federal law existed, so prosecuting robbery under the coercion or the threat of force was difficult unless it was committed in, say, a federal building.

The Hobbs Act also includes a provision for acts committed “under the color of official right.” That means a public official accepted or agreed to accept a payment to which he or she was not entitled in expectation of an official act, Weber said.

Extortion under the Hobbs Act does not entail a physical threat. But rather a person may feel pressured to contribute because the person asking for the donation is a public official, and the fear is that no donation, means no work or contracts, Weber said.

Conversely, the donor may have an expectation that the public official will be far more friendly, if he or she makes a donation, according to Weber.

He offered the example of a police officer who stops someone for speeding and tells the driver that he could look the other if the driver has $50. The officer has neither threatened or coerced the driver, but the expectation is there that your problem could disappear, he said.

It’s a difficult allegation to prove because the prosecution needs to show an explicit promise of a quid pro quo, according to Weber.

In his instructions to the jury, U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez told jurors that the government is not required to prove the mayor actually had the power to take any action.

The prosecution has alleged a scheme in which an attorney with the Norris McLaughlin law firm was promised the solicitor position with the Allentown Parking Authority in exchange for contributions to the mayor’s U.S. Senate campaign. The defense has repeatedly told the jury that the mayor did not have the authority to appoint a solicitor to the parking authority.

The judge also instructed the jury that prosecutors are not required to prove Pawlowski made a specific threat. They must, however, prove that he deliberately used his official position to obtain something of value.

Travel Act bribery
Simply put, someone accused of Travel Act bribery travels across state lines for the purpose of engaging in bribery.

A grand jury indicted the mayor on three counts of Travel Act bribery for two trips to New York City to allegedly solicit a bribe from real estate developer Jack Rosen and for one trip to New York City to allegedly discuss a bribe with Allentown real estate developer Ramzi Haddad.

Weber said it’s generally easy to prove the trip, but the difficulty is proving the reason for the trip.

“If he was there to see a Broadway show and then says, ‘Let me call Jack Rosen to talk about something,’ that could be more difficult.”

As a former prosecutor, Weber said the charge shows him that the mayor “did not want to have certain conversations at home.”

Material false statement to the FBI
Lying to the FBI.

To be clear, it’s lying to the FBI in a material false way. You won’t get charged for lying to agents about your age, Weber said.

It can be a fairly easy charge to prove, especially if the defendant is allegedly caught lying on tape, Weber said. It’s not a slam dunk though based on what a defendant is accused of lying about, he said.

The mayor is accused of lying about his involvement in the contract bidding process. The question for the jurors will be what constitutes being involved in the bidding process, Weber said.

“Interpretation will be a big part of whether it’s a knowing or intentional false statement,” he said.

Wire and mail fraud
A defendant engages in wire or mail fraud if the person used the internet, texts, emails or the mail in furtherance of a fraudulent scheme to acquire money or property or to deprive people of public services.

The charges stem from emails and letters that dealt with contracts or requests for proposals regarding the city’s streetlights, pool and tax collection contracts.

Weber said the prosecution doesn’t need to prove quid pro quo to prove mail or wire fraud. A mailing doesn’t even need to be a false, only a mailing in furtherance of a fraudulent scheme.

Weber said mail and wire fraud aren’t necessarily difficult to prove. The challenge is proving the underlying scheme, he said.

In his instructions to the jury, Sanchez said the prosecution must show the mayor devised a scheme to defraud or obtain money by fraudulent pretenses; acted with an intent to defraud and used the mail to carry out the scheme.

Honest services wire and mail fraud and aiding and abetting
Honest services fraud deals with one’s rights to honest services or intangible rights.

Weber said prosecutors need to show that Pawlowski deprived the residents of Allentown of his “honest and faithful services.” The judge told jurors in his instructions that a public official owes “honest, faithful and disinterested service” to the public and government he or she serves.

“The public relies on such public officials to act for their public interest, not for their own enrichment,” Sanchez said.

The honest services charges deal with city contracts and emails regarding developer Ramzi Haddad’s zoning and inspection issues. Investigators allege the mayor expedited the processes for Haddad in exchange for campaign donations.

If the prosecution can prove the fraudulent act and intent to defraud, they should be able to prove honest services mail or wire fraud, according to Weber.

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