FBI Probe

Plasticware, meatballs, 'taking the kids to school' and pay-to-play in Allentown

Defense again insists 'meatballs' code for bribes

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The former Allentown finance director’s love of food was so well known that the city’s finance operations manager testified she gave him her extra plasticware, so he could take home leftovers.

“He was very well known in city hall for liking food,” Barbara Wagenhurst said of former Finance Director Garett Strathearn. “If you had any food on your desk, beware because it might not be there the next day.”

Wagenhurst injected a bit of levity into Monday’s testimony as the federal bribery trial of Mayor Ed Pawlowski resumed. Authorities allege Pawlowski traded city contracts in exchange for campaign donations.

Last week, Pawlowski defense attorney Jack McMahon and Strathearn got into a heated exchange over the repeated use of the word “meatballs” heard in secretly recorded conversations. McMahon alleged meatballs was code for bribes to Strathearn from Mike Fleck, the mayor’s former campaign manager.

Strathearn insisted meatballs were meatballs were meatballs.

During questioning from Asst. U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek, Wagenhurst said Strathearn was known as the “garbage disposal.” Along with extra plasticware, she said she’d bring leftovers into the office that he’d happily take.

Strathearn has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing for his role in allegedly rigging a delinquent tax collection contract to a firm reportedly seen as beneficial to the mayor’s U.S. Senate run.

The prosecution on Monday called Wagenhurst – a former purchasing agent for Allentown – and Beth Ann Strohl, who held the same position when the FBI raided city hall in July 2015.

The prosecution offered testimony last week about how former Assistant City Solicitor Dale Wiles allegedly changed scoring sheets at Strathearn’s direction to make sure a city delinquent tax collection contract went to a firm preferred by the mayor. Wiles has also pleaded guilty for his role.

Strohl testified Wiles told her that he was uncomfortable changing score sheets. Wagenhurst told jurors how she overheard the conversation between Strohl and Wiles in which he was “venting” about the bidding review process.

She testified that Wiles said, “Now I have to go change the scores. The administration wants Northeast Revenue.”

“I covered my ears and said, ‘Dale, I didn’t just hear that,’ and went back into my office,” Wagenhurst told the jury.

Strohl testified she made a handwritten note on the tax collection contract file that the city was to award the bid to Northeastern Revenue as per a conversation with Strathearn and Francis Dougherty, the city’s former managing director. She called it unusual that a department head like Dougherty, who was not a member of the review committee, would make a decision on a contract.

“Why did you make the notation?” Asst. U.S. Prosecutor Michelle Morgan asked.

“Because it was outside the norm, so I documented the file,” Strohl testified.

FBI Special Agent Scott Curtis testified Monday afternoon that investigators uncovered several euphemisms that Fleck, the mayor and others used in their phone conversations. He said Fleck and Pawlowski are heard several times talking about “taking the kids to school,” which investigators said was code for talking in person instead of on the phone.

In an October 2014 conversation recorded by Ruchlewicz in the office of Fleck Consulting, Fleck is heard said that he was taking the kids to school.

“And don’t mean that as a euphemism,” he said. “I really legitimately have to take the kids to school.”

Audio Clip: Mike Fleck and Ed Pawlowski are heard using the phrase "Taking the kids to school" in a recorded phone call from September 4th, 2014.

Business consultant James Hickey used to warn everyone to “only talk within the family,” a reference to discussing pay-to-play business only with those you trust, according to Curtis. Hickey has pleaded guilty to his role in allegedly rigging a streetlight contract.

Investigators allege attorney Scott Allinson referred to people “speaking our dialect of English,” when it came to pay-to-play, Curtis testified. Allison has been indicted on two counts of trying to secure city business in exchange for campaign donations.

And then there’s “meatballs.”

Curtis testified that he initially believed meatballs was code for kickbacks from Fleck to Strathearn for allegedly rigging the bidding system. But the investigation eventually revealed that meatballs meant exactly that … meatballs, he said.

In a recording played by the prosecution, Ruchlewicz references Strathearn taking kickbacks.

“Gary is a lot of things, but he would never do that. Who told you that?” Fleck responded.

McMahon, Pawlowski’s defense attorney, later hammered Curtis, insisting meatballs was code. He re-read from a transcript in which Fleck and Strathearn talk about the awarding of the tax collection contract followed by Strathearn referencing how he likes his meatballs cooked.

In a separate conversation, Fleck tells Ruchlewicz that he needed to go cook some meatballs.

“Now three weeks later, (Strathearn) is asking for meatballs. But now you’re changing your mind?” McMahon asked Curtis.

“Yes, our investigation led us to believe otherwise,” he said. McMahon is scheduled to finish his cross-examination of Curtis when testimony resumes Tuesday morning.

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