The Spencer Corruption Saga

As Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer sits facing imminent arrest for public corruption I hope he enjoys his current vacation.  It is obviously the precursor for one he’ll be having quite soon:  a lengthy stay in a federal prison.  Alright, so that won’t feel like a vacation.  He is the obvious person identified in Department of Justice documents as “elected official #1 in yesterday’s conviction of City Council President Francis Acosta.  Elected official #2 is reportedly Acosta’s wife Rebecca President of the Reading School Board.  Who else would he funnel bribe money through?  The charge yesterday was that Spencer gave Mrs. Acosta’s campaign $1,800 in exchange for Mr. Acosta getting a city ethics law repealed preventing the Mayor from collecting illegal campaign contributions for his failed re-election campaign.

I examined the campaign finance reports for April, the period covered by the payment according tot he FBI document, and neither candidate reported the exchange of money.  No disbursement of $1,800 to any elected public official exists in Spencer’s report and no expenditure to Mrs. Acosta is reported.  Her report doesn’t disclose any such contribution for that period.  These omissions would be a violation of Pennsylvania election law though that’s the least of their worries at this time.

Did both campaigns consciously omit the transaction?  Spencer’s campaign treasurer is/was his chief aid Eron Lloyd.  Interestingly his reports also had a glaring deficiency.  His ending cash balance of $23,343.39 mysteriously became a cash forward balance of just $12,665.54 in his next report.  This was corrected in an amended report dated June 19th but I can’t imagine how the error occurred.  Spencer’s campaign was using NGP Van software.  I’ve used NGP software before and all you do is continuously input your contributions and expenditures and it spits out your report when it’s due.  If you submitted a report with this error in it, even if it’s off by a few cents, the software will alert you that two figures are not compatible.

If you end one reporting period with $23,343 cash on hand you have to begin the next one with same amount.  Their report reduced it to $12,665.  For the software to allow that expenditures of about $10,678 happened somewhere.  Maybe $1,800 of it went to Rebecca Acosta?

I’ve known Mayor Spencer for quite a while.  While I like him personally I never liked him as a public official.  As City Council President prior to being elected Mayor he was a crony of State Representative Tom Caltagirone with whom I’ve had disagreements.  When Spencer was attempting to ram through the sale of Antietam Lake and the surrounding land to MB Investments it was obvious he’d been bought off somehow.  Another City Council ally of the sale mysteriously wound up with a nice new house.  No one could ever prove the corruption but we all smelled it.

City Council members Donna Reed, Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz and Jeff Waltman united to block that deal.  The land was finally sold to Berks County and developed into a park.  At one fateful meeting at the Berks County Services Center I recall Spencer referring to John Fox, the Mascaro lawyer, as “our attorney.”  Following the faux pas he quickly left the Commissioners Chambers in embarrassment.  It was further evidence he was in their pay.

It’s funny how chickens sometimes come home to roost.  After becoming Mayor Spencer attempted to get around the City Charter and other rules.  Honest City Council members called him on his illegal shenanigans and it all resulted in prolonged legal battles.  For a city unable to provide basic services and in Act 47 the expenditure of a million dollars in legal fees was inexcusable.

I’m also intrigued by Spencer’s relationship with retailer Albert Boscov.  Boscov is also a major developer in Reading and recently was awarded a contract to renovate four city owned properties along Penn Street.  Developer Alan Shuman, someone with far more experience developing properties, was denied the work.  Boscov is finishing construction of his new Doubletree Hotel in downtown Reading, something for which he obtained tax abatements for.  He gave a $70,000 loan to Spencer’s re-election campaign.  Is this pay to play?  I suppose we’ll find out all the answers once the indictments are handed down.

Reading Eagle Defends Its Ethical Failures

The Reading Eagle launched a defense of criticism it’s received over its failures to disclose conflicts of interest in its City reporting bureau.  Harry Dietz launched a pathetic defense in today’s issue.  He began by saying “Our credibility is crucial.”  True, but the real issue here is the newspaper’s integrity.  It launched a specious attack on the Mayor with a front page, headline article which announced that Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer’s campaign finance report was under investigation.  They did this the day after the Mayor accused the Eagle of failing to disclose that its City Hall reporter Don Spatz reported directly to Spencer’s longtime political nemesis’ husband.

The Reading Eagle never, to my knowledge, disclosed this relationship in any of its reporting on the principles involved.  Journalist integrity and ethics demands such disclosure.  I’m sure my readers tired of my constantly disclosing my being a member of the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood whenever I wrote about the organization, the political attacks upon it and women’s reproductive rights.  I didn’t keep doing that to bore anyone, ethics required my disclosing that relationship when I wrote about the organization.

Conversely when City Editor Tom Knause directly supervised the reporter writing about Reading City Council and Councilwoman Donna Reed, Knause’s spouse, it had to be disclosed in the newspaper articles.  Mayor Spencer has done considerably much for the Eagle to be writing about and Spatz devoted many of his columns to the Mayor and never disclosed the conflict of interest.  Spencer took the opportunity and attacked the paper for its failures of disclosure.  Councilwoman Reed discloses the relationship on her City Council website but that doesn’t absolve the Eagle from its ethical obligations.

The Eagle doesn’t seem to grasp this.  Dietz discloses in his treatise today that the paper went to lengths to prevent any conflicts but no readers of the paper were aware of any of it until today.  Perceptions are reality and the paper built the perception, due to its failure to disclose, that conflicts may have been happening.

The paper’s worst offense, however, which goes to its integrity, was the specious attack upon the Mayor done in retribution.  This was an unforgiveable offense and one Dietz failed to address today.

Last August Eagle reporter Mary Young reported that the Berks County Board of Elections had voted 2-0 (with the lone Democrat abstaining) to authorize $8,000 of taxpayer money to investigate a campaign finance violation.  The county District Attorney had opted not to investigate so the County Commissioners, acting as the Board of Elections, hired a top GOP operative in Philadelphia to investigate.

It took me little time to deduce the target was a Democrat and had run for election the previous year.  I deduced the subject campaign finance report to be that of newly elected Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer.  From the Eagle article on a Friday I discovered the facts of the matter by that Sunday.  On the next Tuesday I went to the County Commissioners meeting to ask Mark Scott about the target:  IBEW union chief Johnny Dougherty.  The previous day I had pulled the campaign finance reports for Mayor Spencer and for Scott.

The issue being investigated is whether the Spencer campaign conspired to violate Philadelphia’s campaign finance laws.  The union gave the Mayor $30,000 for GOTV work shortly before election day (about a week out).  They only needed $10,000 to pay poll workers so the remainder was given to two Philadelphia City Council candidates.  Philadelphia limits PAC contributions to city candidates to $10,000 and the IBEW had already maxxed out.  The Spencer contributions were seen by mark Scott as an attempt for the IBEW to circumvent those limits.

Here’s the crux of the problem:  Berks County has no jurisdiction in Philadelphia elections.  The Philadelphia City Commission has that authority. In order to prove Scott’s  supposition intent would have to be proven and Spencer’s campaign consultants deny any such conspiracy.  The lawyer hired by Berks County is a Republican who does much work for the sate GOP.  He has no subpoena authority and has been unable to even convince anyone to attend a deposition.

This is why the Eagle’s attack on the Mayor was specious:  the allegations are bogus because the Board of Elections has no authority to investigate its allegations.  Interestingly the Eagle never followed up on its initial report between August and March until Mayor Spencer embarrassed them for their ethical lapses.  Suddenly they rediscovered this non story and ran it on their front page.

That is what cost The Reading Eagle its integrity and Harry Dietz failed to address that issue at all.

Reading Mayor Slams Newspaper’s Ethics

Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer has launched an attack against The Reading Eagle for failing to disclose a conflict of interest in its critical reporting of his conduct as Mayor. The Mayor and Councilwoman Donna Reed have opposed each other for numerous years mostly going back to a controversial attempt by then Council President Spencer to sell a city owned lake, dam and park to the Mascaro Brothers.  Reed and others successfully fought the sell off and Berks County eventually bought Antietam Lake and made it a county park.

The problem is that Reed is married to Eagle Assistant News Editor Tom Knause who directly supervises City Hall reporter Don Spatz.  The paper has been especially critical of Spencer’s term as mayor and supposedly confidential decisions against the Mayor by the local Charter Board have been published.  The issue of whether or not they can legally be confidential under Pennsylvania Open Records Law is a different matter.  Mayor Spencer issued a “Perspectives From the Mayor’s Desk” lambasting the Eagle for not disclosing its obvious conflict of interest when writing about the Mayor and Council.  It should be doing so.  The Reading Eagle surrenders any ethical standing by failing to do so.

The letter by Mayor Spencer:

Whenever my actions are misrepresented or misreported by the media or whenever the media refuses to print the truth about city affairs, I will do my best to communicate the other side of the story.  This is my second in a series of open emails where I can speak my mind and let the citizens draw their own conclusions.

The subject of today’s email is biased reporting by our only local paper, the Reading Eagle. For the past 14 months since I took office, the Reading Eagle has engaged in a coordinated campaign of yellow journalism driven by a glaring conflict of interest.

Few in our community are aware of the fact that Councilwoman Donna Reed’s husband, Reading Eagle Assistant News Editor Tom Knause, is the direct supervisor for city hall reporter Don Spatz.  As Spatz’s supervisor, Knause would have direct control over all major aspects of Spatz’s employment. This would normally include discipline, hours of work, salary, paid leave and more.

It should come as no surprise then, that when Reed goes on the attack, Spatz goes on the attack. Rumor and innuendo masquerade as fact, bold headlines are generated, newspaper circulation and sales increase, and Reed’s political agenda and reelection campaign are bolstered. And to top things off, Knause is also coordinates the Reading Eagle’s coverage of elections.

The Society of Professional Journalists is the watchdog organization whose aim is to promote and maintain professional standards of conduct for journalists across America. For this purpose, the SPJ maintains a Code of Ethics. The SPJ Ethics Code is recognized around the world as the premier code in journalism and is translated into 15 languages and has been adopted by hundreds of newsrooms. Don Spatz is not a member of SPJ and I question whether the Reading Eagle recognizes the professional standards established in the Code.

We contacted Kevin Smith, Chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society for Professional Journalism.  We presented Mr. Smith with the exact context of the relationship among Spatz, Councilwoman Reed and Reed’s husband. The question posed to Mr. Smith was whether or not the SPJ Code would require full disclosure by Spatz and the Reading Eagle.

Here is Mr. Smith’s reply:

“Ideally the paper should publically acknowledge this potential conflict with every story it prints about city council … a simple sentence or editor’s note  at the beginning or end of the story that says city councilwoman Donna Reed is married to Reading Eagle’s editor Tom Knause.

The reason I say this is because one cannot assume that announcing it one time or periodically will be caught or read by many readers … [s]uggesting that this can be announced and forgotten by the paper is short sighted on its part.

Every time that the conflict potentially exists it should be acknowledged.”

Spatz has been publicly challenged regarding this conflict of interest but he has never reported on those public challenges nor has he or the Eagle ever publicly disclosed this breach of public trust.  

Councilwoman Reed and the Reading Eagle are equally obligated to not only disclose but to rectify this situation.  The City of Reading Code of Ethics prohibits conflicts of interest, defined as follows at Section 3. G.:

”Situation(s) or potential situation(s) in which a public official or employee uses or may use his/her office or employment for the private gain of himself/herself, a member of his/her immediate family or a business of any type with which he/she or a member of his/her immediate family has a material interest.”

It’s time for top management at the Reading Eagle to sit down with their legal counsel, Councilwoman Reed, Knause, and Spatz to sort out exactly how they will resolve this clear conflict of interest.  One thing is certain, the resolution must start with public acknowledgement that they have deceived their readers.

Please help make the community aware of this situation by forwarding this message to your network.

The Reading Mayor’s Inaugural Ball

This is going to sound like the blog morphed into a society column.  Last night I attended Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer’s inaugural ball at the Sovereign Performing Arts Center where one entered three floors of ballrooms and suspended belief.  Suspended belief that one was in the poorest city in the nation.  For four hours I was surrounded by opulence, men in tuxedos and suits, women in gowns, drinking, eating and dancing to live entertainment on each level.  Entering the ground floor there sat a massive ice sculpture of the famous pagoda, Reading’s landmark.

Dumping my outer garment at the coat check room I sidled past the long line for the bar and was escorted upstairs by Mick Dee, the Mayor’s new Communications Director.  The second and third floors were decked out with tables surrounded by local merchants whose tables were decked with food for the guests.  Dubbed “A Taste of Reading” they donated the gustaceous delights which offered a full range of delicious eating.  There was even a new Jamaican restaurant.  While the food, beer and soft drinks were donated the Mayor’s Transition Team did purchase the wine (state law), cakes rent the facility.

This was a lavish affair.  A long gray, vintage limo parked outside on Sixth Street for most of the evening while Mayor Vaughn Spencer, donned in a stylish tuxedo, held court.  He was joined by City Council and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

I have lots of pictures so let’s take this society column under the fold…

Hello again, here are pictures of the upper ballrooms and a few of the local restaurants which participated:

The view of the first floor from the mezzanine:

There I came upon City Councilwoman Donna Reed and new Council President (succeeding Spencer) Francis Acosta:

Scott Hoh and former Councilman Angel Figueroa:

Mayor and Mrs. Ed Pawlowski:

Labor leader Fred Shaef and former Sixth Congressional District candidate Doug Pike:

Rick Hinnershitz and his wife Councilwoman Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz:

Retired labor leader Larry Murin and his lovely wife Brenda:

My dear friend Rosie Skomitz:

A few more pictures of the lavish surroundings and the mayor:

How appropriate was all this in the poorest city in America?  How appropriate was it for Spencer to be sworn in in a church?  I found everyone regaling in the special night while thousands of city residents were going to bed hungry.  It might have started his term out on a better foot to invite many of the city’s poverty stricken residents into the ballroom instead for a meal.  Around 75% of Reading School District students qualify for free meals, many toil at multiple jobs making $7.25/hour struggling just to keep roofs over their heads.  At a time when heating assistance has been cut back along with WIC, welfare and access to medical care this lavish evening seemed out of touch with reality.

I suspended belief for four hours then dealt with one of the city’s persistent problems on my short drive home:  double parkers.  They’re the biggest reason I avoid Reading like the plague.

News & Notes April 6, 2010

 I’ll be in Harrisburg today for a Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania PAC Board meeting.

The 162,000 jobs created last month are a clear sign the stimulus plan is working and that the President’s economic program is underway.  Don’t take this as meaning the Great Recession is over because we lost $7 trillion in wealth, 7 million homes to foreclosure and millions remain unemployed.  There’s a long road yet ahead but we dare not veer off back towards the abyss.

Now that Philadelphia, Allentown and Harrisburg have enacted bans of driver’s use of hand held cell phones Reading City Councilwoman Donna Reed proposed such an ordinance there.  Apparently Reading is such a crime ridden city, according to other Council members, City police could not find time to enforce such a measure.  I suppose wasting all their time writing accident reports is better?  I’m constantly amazed at the idiocy of those serving on that board!

Pat Toomey raised $2,300,000 the last reporting period so Democrats need to wake up about their candidate.  Snarlin’ Arlen is doomed.   Do we really want to go through another Santorum era?

Mark Critz is on the air with commercials for the 12th CD special Congressional election.  Does anyone want to bet me Tim Burns hits him on tax related attack ads before April 15th?  They can’t be stupid enough to miss this opportunity can they?

A grand jury has passed presentments against Sen. Jane Orie according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappalla investigated after allegations arose from an intern working for the Senator that she used her office and staff to organize and work for her sister Joan Orie Melvin’s Supreme Court election last year.  Allegations of corruption arose around that campaign like onions in the spring.  Attorney General Tom Corbett, making his case for Governor based on prosecuting Democrats for the same thing, refused to go after Orie.

Joan Orie Melvin’s knowledge and involvement are what interest me.  The sisters campaigned together all across the state and there seems no way, in my mind, that Justice Melvin didn’t, at least, have knowledge of such alleged corruption.  If so she needs to resign or be indicted based on evidence coming out in trial.