ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Federal prosecutors in the Allentown pay-to-play trial have accused the city’s former finance director of manipulating the bidding process for a delinquent tax collection contract at the behest of the mayor.
But Mayor Ed Pawlowski testified Wednesday that he never even knew Finance Director Garett Strathearn took the place of someone on the review committee, and said he never told Strathearn that he wanted the contract awarded to Northeast Revenue Services.
“Honestly, if I was up to me I would have probably picked Linebarger Goggan,” Pawlowski said of another firm that submitted a proposal.
The mayor took the stand Wednesday morning in his own defense in the ongoing bribery and corruption trial into allegations of pay-to-play politics in Allentown City Hall. Investigators allege that the mayor traded favors and city contracts in exchange for campaign donations.
During morning testimony, defense attorney Jack McMahon questioned Pawlowski extensively about the city’s bidding process and the contract awarded to Northeast Revenue. Investigators allege the mayor saw the partnership between the firm and Montgomery County-based attorney Sean Kilkenny as an important source of political donations and connections in the Wilkes-Barre area and Montgomery County.
The mayor laid out for the jury how the city goes about selecting vendors and his involvement in that process. Department heads and their staffs put together requests for proposals or RFPs and select their review committees, he said.
In response to a question from McMahon, Pawlowski testified that he is never involved in the RFP process.
“I never see those,” the mayor said of RFPs. “I’m never part of that process.”
Pawlowski also testified that he never got involved in any potential contracts unless it dealt specifically with a policy decision, such a snow removal or garbage collection.
“Trash is a big political issue,” he said. “If I don’t pick up your garbage, people get mad.”
McMahon focused much of the morning testimony on the Northeast Revenue contract. Strathearn testified earlier in the trial for the prosecution that he manipulated the bidding process because the mayor told his finance director that Northeast landing the contract was important to him.
But McMahon tried to counter that assertion by noting for the jury that Strathearn was out of the office for months before the committee reviewed the proposals and that it was Michael Fleck, his former campaign manager, who communicated it was important that Northeast landed the contract.
The defense played a Jan. 7, 2014, phone call between Strathearn and Fleck in which Strathearn said he’d be back in the office the next day after a lengthy medical leave. Fleck is heard telling Strathearn “all things being equal, we really would appreciate it if Northeast Revenue becomes the new collector.”
Fleck is heard saying that Pawlowski wants Northeast Revenue, and Strathearn testified the mayor told him the same thing. But McMahon attacked Strathearn’s testimony by producing copies of the mayor’s daily planner from Jan. 8-10, showing Pawlowski wasn’t even in city hall those days with his finance director.
“Did you ever say those words?” McMahon asked.
“No,” the mayor replied.
“Did you even have the opportunity to say those words in Garret Strathearn’s presence?” McMahon asked.
“No,” Pawlowski said.
The defense circled back to a secret recording made by former campaign aide, Sam Ruchlewicz, in which the mayor is heard complaining about the lack of donations coming from Northeast Revenue.
Pawlowski made it clear Wednesday that he approached the firm for his U.S. Senate campaign after he formally announced his candidacy in April 2015.
The firm’s president, John Rodgers, had frequently commented about the politically connected people he knew in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, which was a weak area for the campaign, Pawlowski said. And he readily admitted his frustration with Rodgers dragging his feet on helping the campaign set up a fundraiser and introducing him to the right people, the mayor said.
Pawlowski never tried to deny that he said Northeast Revenue “really pisses him off” or that the city “broke our backs for them” as the company struggled to establish its tax collection operations in the early months of its contract. The city worked with the firm, got them back on track and headed in the right director, the mayor said.
“My thought is they should be at least grateful,” he said.
The prosecution previously played a secret recording in which the mayor and Fleck are discussing the difficulty in getting campaign donations out of Northeast Revenue that it would be easy to give the work back to the city’s former tax collector. The comments were made as the mayor prepared to call Kilkenny for a donation.
“Anyone who has to raise money gets frustrated after a while,” Pawlowski said.
He also denied ever telling Kilkenny directly that the city could simply give the job back to its old collection agency.
“Expressing it to my campaign staff out of frustration and telling it to a donor are two different things,” Pawlowski said.
McMahon throughout the trial has played portions of secret recordings he maintains the prosecution has deliberately avoided because it points to his client’s innocence. He played one of those recordings on Wednesday.
In the recording secretly made by Ruchlewicz, Pawlowski is heard complaining about Mark Neisser with the engineering firm, T&M Associates. Ruchlewicz informed the mayor that Neisser is not inclined to donate to his campaign because the firm just hasn’t gotten enough work out of the city.
Neisser has pleaded guilty in the pay-to-play case, and McMahon made it clear to the jury that the secret recording being played was made after Ruchlewicz agreed to cooperate with the FBI.
Pawlowski is heard implying that Neisser was looking to trade contracts for donations and telling Ruchlewicz that he’s not a “pay-to-play guy.” At one point, Pawlowski is heard saying of Neisser, “screw him.”
“What did you mean by that?” McMahon asked.
“Exactly that. ‘Screw ‘em,’” Pawlowski replied.
The mayor testified that he’d met with Neisser, explained the city’s purchasing process and got him on the city’s bidders list.
“If he’s not going to bid, he’s not going to get contracts,” Pawlowski said. “That’s it.”
The mayor told jurors that he thought he was making it clear to Ruchlewicz in that conversation that he would not engage in pay-to-play politics.
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