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Allentown mayor on trial for 54-count criminal indictment

Halle Nelson, News Editor

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On Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 Democrat Ed Pawlowski won the Allentown mayoral election. Pawlowski was facing a 54-count criminal indictment at the time of his election. He won a fourth term in office by securing 4,794 votes. The total voting population for Allentown is 65,000. There were 2,025 write-ins.

“According to a 60-page document,” The Morning Call’s Emily Opilo reports, “Pawlowski led a conspiracy to trade city contracts in exchange for campaign contributions, sports tickets and dinners.” Pawlowski’s campaign contributions accumulated to over $150,000. He says he is innocent. WFMZ writer Edward Sieger said that the defense “continued attacking the prosecution’s position by arguing it was the mayor’s consultants, not the mayor himself, who was shaking people down for money and making promises behind the scenes.”

The FBI first investigated Pawlowski in 2013 after examining press reports. They brought in two undercover agents posing as developers to meet with his political consultants.

These consultants were then instructed by the FBI to wear wiretaps and cooperate with their mission. The recordings from these wiretaps are still being used in the ongoing trial against him. A key player in the FBI investigation spoke at the trial.

Special Agent Scott Curtis took the stand. He said that the FBI suspected Pawlowski’s campaign advisor, Michael Fleck, and business associate, Sam Ruchlewicz, of loan and tax fraud. Further investigation led to the agency alleging a pay-to-play scheme. Pawlowski argues his innocence and his representation claims that the FBI’s case “was built with unreliable consultants to the mayor who were crooked themselves.”

Jack McMahon, Pawlowski’s lawyer, said during his opening statement that Fleck and Ruchlewicz are “conniving, self-absorbed, morally bankrupt, money grubbing, moral reprobates.” Fleck himself plead guilty in 2016 to tax evasion and conspiracy. Additionally, while Ruchlewicz has not been charged with any crime, he did confess to stealing some of the Allentown Future Fund, a fund created by Pawlowski and Fleck.

After being confronted by the FBI about the theft, he agreed to cooperate. He described the fund as “a ‘scheme’ to raise a large amount of money ‘without public accountability.’”

One of the moments of the trial that gained national attention was the meatball debate. New York Times writer Jess Bidgood says that former finance director Garret H. Strathearn testified, “He had helped nudge a contract toward a company affiliated with one of Mr. Pawlowski’s supporters.” A recording was played of a conversation between him and Fleck about meatballs. Pawlowski’s lawyer claimed that “meatball” was code for payoff. Strathearn claimed that the conversation was about literal meatballs, saying, “the meatballs were the meatballs were the meatballs.”

It was also brought to the court’s attention that Strathearn has admitted to lying both to FBI agents and a grand jury. Additionally he plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud in 2015.

Finally, Bidgood notes that McMahon played a recording of Strathearn and Fleck discussing “a contract that Mr. Strathearn testified to having steered to benefit a campaign donor. (He admitted to rigging the contract in early 2016.)”

Another person who testified was Allentown developer Ramzi Haddad who, upon taking the stand, said that he did not attend a meeting with Pawlowski in June 2015 where he was supposed to give campaign checks to the defendant. Haddad withheld the checks because he says Pawlowski did not keep his promise to lease Haddad’s building as a public works garage. Haddad later gave the checks saying “I thought, ‘Man, if I don’t go there, this guy is going to be vindictive.’”

The Morning Call’s Peter Hall and Opilo note that Haddad “plead guilty in 2015 to conspiracy to commit bribery” and that his testimony, “highlighted increasing concern among Pawlowski and his campaign consultants about the legality of their actions, with Fleck telling Pawlowski, ‘We don’t want to get Rob McCord’d,’ in a reference to the former Pennsylvania treasurer who pleaded guilty to extortion.”

The Morning Call’s Bill White thinks that in order for the defense to win they will “have to convince the jury that yeah, those guys and others were crooks, but the mayor’s conduct was legal, even if he was talking about using burner phones, personally soliciting contributions under questionable circumstances and having his office swept for bugs.”

The trial will continue on Monday, Feb. 5 at 11 a.m. where Ruchlewicz is expected to go back on the stand.

Halle Nelson is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in deaf studies and English literature. ✉️ [email protected].  @Halle_N_Nelson.

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Allentown mayor on trial for 54-count criminal indictment