Lehigh Valley

Allegations leveled against Brown for using PR firm for political purposes

Brown calls claims "unfounded"

EASTON, Pa. - In the latest in a series of clashes, Northampton County Executive John Brown Thursday was accused of using Sahl Communications, a Bethlehem public relations firm he recently awarded a new county contract, for political purposes such as fund raising at taxpayer expense.

The allegations surfaced in emails that County Controller Stephen Barron obtained from a lawsuit he filed earlier this year against Brown after Brown awarded Sahl an $84,000,000 no-bid contract in February.

In the wake of the lawsuit, Brown terminated the Sahl contract. But last month, Sahl returned after the position was advertised and the company submitted the lowest bid of $76,500.

Barron gave council copies of the emails to-and- from Brown and Kim Plyler, president and CEO of Sahl, with one dated April 4 with the subject" Corbett fundraiser Let me know!"

Barron said the email exchanges show "we need additional oversight with regard to this contract."

Brown, reading from a prepared statement, brushed aside the criticisms. He called the latest allegations unfounded and the work of people promoting "personal political agendas."

"Certain members of this body have been threatening lawsuits and alleging misconduct by the executive office for the past several months," Brown said. "The threats are obviously hollow, allegations unfounded and represent merely as ‘opinion' of a minority with an ax to grind."

Council member Lamont McClure compared the Sahl-Brown emails to "Bonusgate," a statewide scandal involving illegal use of government money for political purposes. More than two dozen arrests were made.

"This may be Bonusgate," McClure said. "Not in scope but in context."

Not everyone agreed.

Council member Matthew Benol said he believed it was "more of a witch hunt" against Brown.

Benol, referring to the email, said, "This could be cherry-picked." He also criticized the controller for not passing the emails on attorney Phil Lauer, the solicitor, and not handing them out at a public meeting.

"All of this to me is really smoke and mirrors," Benol said.

"I think this is just an allegation," Benol said. "There should be concrete proof."

McClure shot back, "which you are holding in your hand."

Brown, in his response to council, spent about half his time talking what he has consistently stressed are the serious problems facing the county's finances.

He said the county has been spending more than it brings for several years: $18 million in 2012; $14 million in 2013 and $18 million in 2014.

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