FBI Probe

Federal prosecutors dive into Allentown pool contract

The cross-examination in expected to begin Monday.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - When testimony resumes 9 a.m. Monday in the Allentown pay-to-play trial, the focus will return to a pool design contract that investigators allege mysteriously went to a firm not supported by the committee tasked with choosing the winner.

Monday marks the start of the fourth week of Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s federal bribery and conspiracy trial at the Edward N. Cahn Federal Courthouse, which sits practically across the street from Allentown City Hall.

Pawlowski stands accused of trading favors and city contracts in exchange for campaign donations. Co-defendant and attorney Scott Allinson is also accused of trying to direct city legal work to his firm in exchange for the promise of generating donations for the mayor.

Investigators have focused on a handful of contracts the FBI alleges were funneled to or created for potential donors. Over the trial’s first three weeks, the prosecution has methodically worked to show how city staff allegedly manipulated the bidding process at the behest of the mayor.

On Thursday, prosecutors turned their attention to a contract to renovate Allentown’s swimming pools and spray parks. Investigators allege the review process was manipulated by former city Managing Director Fran Dougherty to steer the work toward Spillman Farmer Architects and one of the firm’s principals, Joe Biondo. Biondo has not been charged in the case.

Christy Alvord, the city’s recreation and events coordinator, served on the committee assigned to review the pool design proposals. Alvord testified Thursday that the group initially ranked MKSD Architects first followed by Integrated Aquatics and Spillman Farmer, respectively.

Under questioning from Asst. U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan, Alvord testified that Dougherty asked her how the review process was going and suggested the committee “take a closer look at Spillman Farmer,” a directive she said she found peculiar.

“It seemed like an unusual thing to say,” Alvord said. “We didn’t know exactly what it meant or how to take it.”

The prosecution throughout the trial has established that Dougherty, the highest-ranking unelected position in city hall, was at the top of the food chain right below the mayor.

During cross-examination by defense attorney Jack McMahon, Alvord said she reviewed the proposals “to the best of her abilities” and confirmed that she never spoke with the mayor about them. When asked whether the suggestion to take a closer look at Spillman Farmer influenced her decision, Alvord testified that being asked to do so by Dougherty likely prompted committee members to give the firm a closer look.

Richard Holtzman, the city’s parks superintendent, testified that an email discussion among committee members showed a general agreement on Integrated Aquatics, which also provided a good reference. Morgan asked Holtzman whether Dougherty weighed in on the discussion and what, if anything, he suggested.

“He said, ‘Take another look at Spillman Farmer,’” Holtzman testified.

“What did that mean?” Morgan asked.

“I guess he wanted the committee to lean toward them,” he responded.

Holtzman was the committee member who checked Spillman Farmer’s reference. The reference was not a glowing one, and Holtzman testified that he was given a new and positive reference after informing Dougherty of the initial reference.

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors played a secret recording in which Dougherty is heard calling a Pawlowski campaign aide informing him of the poor reference and asking to get him a new one as soon as possible.

“How did they go from being ranked third and having a bad reference to being awarded a contract?” Morgan asked.

Holtzman said he wasn’t really sure.

“How did Spillman’s work turn out?” Morgan asked.

“Not good,” he replied.

There were problems with the filtration system at Mack Pool and issues with the electrical work and pool walls at Cedar Beach, Holtzman said. The project costs ballooned from $1.8 million to $3.4 million, and the Cedar Beach pool wasn’t open last summer, he said.

Holtzman said the Cedar Beach pool was open for two days in October.

“Right before the mayor’s re-election?” Morgan asked.

“Objection,” defense attorney Jack McMahon said.

“Sustained,” Judge Juan R. Sanchez ruled.

McMahon is expected to cross-examine Holtzman on Monday.

Investigators allege the mayor also steered a construction inspection contract toward McTish, Kunkel and Associates as a favor in exchange for campaign contributions. Matthew McTish, the firm’s former president, testified Thursday morning about donating to the mayor’s campaigns as a way of keeping city work coming to his company.

Richard Young, Allentown’s former public works director, testified Thursday afternoon that the city sought bids for a Basin Street safety improvement project in late 2013. Under questioning from Morgan, Young testified about speaking with Dougherty about the pending contract.

“We talked about that we needed to do McTish Kunkel a favor,” he said.

Young testified about his conversation with FBI agents about the project. He reported that he was told by Dougherty that Pawlowski said he owed the firm a favor, so the city needed to find McTish Kunkel a contract. He said three firms had bid on the work.

Under cross-examination by McMahon, Young confirmed that he never spoke directly with the mayor about a favor and that Basin Street was never mentioned, only that he was told the mayor owed the firm a favor.

In response to questioning by McMahon, Young testified that he always worked to make sure projects were evaluated and awarded on a fair basis. When asked whether the information from Dougherty influenced his decision, Young said he wasn’t certain, but added that he “definitely” felt pressure to steer the work toward McTish’s firm.

McTish has pleaded guilty for his role in the bribery case and is awaiting sentencing.

McMahon’s cross-examination of McTish continued briefly Thursday afternoon. Before and after the lunch break, he played a roughly one-hour secret recording of a meeting that included the mayor and McTish.

The two talked about politics and Pawlowski’s pending U.S. Senate run, but McMahon played the lengthy recording as he worked to reinforce his assertion that the candidate and donor never explicitly spoke about contracts for donations.

McMahon also continued to attack McTish’s assertion that he needed to make campaign donations in Allentown to generate business, noting he donated about $60,000 annually to elected officials and candidates across the state.

McTish had testified earlier that the mayor asked him to raise about $21,000 by June 30, 2015, which was the last reporting day of the second campaign finance reporting quarter. The mayor had been hoping to raise $1 million by the reporting deadline to show he was a serious congressional candidate.

But McTish – disappointed that he didn’t receive a streetscape project he’d been promised – donated only $2,000 and do so a day late.

“So, you gave less and you gave it late to show your dissatisfaction for the lack of pay-to-play in Allentown,” McMahon said.

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