ALLENTOWN, Pa. - In a series of recordings secretly made in June 2015, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and former campaign manager Michael Fleck can be heard allegedly discussing the need to get campaign donations out the firm that was hired a year earlier to collect the city’s delinquent property taxes.
“We have broken a lot of backs for them,” Fleck said. “Someone needs to have a conversation with them up there.”
Federal prosecutors on Monday afternoon introduced testimony from FBI Special Agent Scott Curtis, who headed up the investigation into alleged pay-to-play politics in Allentown City Hall. Authorities allege Pawlowski traded city contracts for donations to his gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races.
The defense, meanwhile, continued its assault on the FBI’s case, arguing that the mayor is never directly demanding campaign donations in exchange for city work.
Fleck and Pawlowski are heard talking about getting a representative from Northeast Revenue Services on the phone to discuss the prospect of fundraising efforts. Investigators allege that city hall staff at the mayor’s direction steered a lucrative contract toward the company in hopes of trading in on fundraising ties.
“We just need to break in up there,” Pawlowski said. “We don’t really have the contacts. They can help us, you know what I mean? You know they’re strong in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.”
They’ve been less than helpful up there,” Pawlowski later said of Northeast Revenue.
Fleck and Pawlowski are heard in another conversation, complaining about not being able to get anyone from Northeast Revenue on the phone.
“It’s easy to go back to Portnoff,” Pawlowski said.
“I understand that, I understand,” Fleck said.
Attorney Sean Kilkenny, who has since been elected Montgomery County sheriff, formed a partnership with Northeast Revenue and its president, John Rodgers, to bid on municipal tax collection contracts. The prosecution played yet another recording of Fleck and Pawlowski leaving a message for Kilkenny as the two were driving.
“The reason I’m calling is we were talking to John (Rodgers). He told use that you would be the one helping up to pull together and raise some dollars,” Pawlowski said in his message to Kilkenny. “I’m looking to see if you guys can do 25 (thousand) by the end of the month. It’s really important that we have about 900,000 in commitments. I need the money in the bank. I’m trying to get to a million.”
Audio Clip: June 15th, 2015, Ed Pawlowski is heard leaving a message for Sean Kilkenny. Mike Fleck and Pawlowski discuss the message after Pawlowski finishes the call.
During his cross-examination, defense attorney Jack McMahon attacked the June 2015 recordings as simply conversations between Pawlowski and his campaign manager, complaining about donors. At no point is the mayor heard making a specific quid pro quo or accusing Northeast Revenue and Kilkenny of underperforming expectations as a result of landing the contract, McMahon said.
And the FBI has no wiretapped conversations between Fleck and the mayor discussing Northeast Revenue before the city awarded the contract, McMahon said.
Earlier in the day, Kilkenny testified that his law firm’s political action committee had routinely donated to an array of state and local political candidates, including $5,000 to Pawlowski in 2013. Those donations jumped to $10,000 in 2014 after Northeast received the tax collection contract.
But McMahon countered that Kilkenny’s firm also donated $2,500 to Tom Mueller’s race for Lehigh County executive and Robert Donchez’s run for Bethlehem mayor and $5,000 for John Callahan’s run for Northampton County executive.
Curtis, the FBI agent, said he first began investigating city hall upon his transfer to the bureau’s Allentown office in March 2013. Investigators suspected Fleck and business associate Sam Ruchlewicz of loan and tax fraud, which eventually led him to the alleged pay-to-play scheme.
The FBI secured a search warrant in November 2013 for Fleck’s cell phone, followed by an April 2014 warrant for Ruchlewicz’s phone.
Curtis testified that agents confronted Ruchlewicz in June 2014 about cooperating, while he was in San Francisco with his fiancée. They created a ruse to separate him from his fiancée and confronted him with search warrants for his cell phone and computer.
Investigators thought it best to confront him in California, where he’d be 3,000 miles away from Fleck and the mayor and unable to consult with them, Curtis said. Ruchlewicz started wearing a wire shortly thereafter.
The FBI confronted Fleck in March 2015 outside a Lehigh Valley diner, ushering him to a nearby hotel where they spoke with him for about an hour, according to Curtis. He agreed to cooperate with the FBI.
McMahon played a recording secretly made by Ruchlewicz the next day in which Fleck is talking with some staff members of his consulting firm. Fleck can be heard saying that the FBI “may be a little overzealous in making up crimes” and expressing concern that the mayor has “never done anything wrong, and I’m going to go in there and set him up.”
Curtis testified that Fleck never told investigators that he planned on setting up the mayor.
“So, he just made it up to his staff?” McMahon said.
“Correct,” Curtis replied.
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