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 Acosta getting a city ethics law repealed preventing the Mayor from collecting illegal campaign contributions for his failed re-election campaign.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.

Democratic Corruption Going Wild

The corruption among elected Democratic officials in the Commonwealth keeps growing.  Yesterday Reading City Council President Francis Acosta pled guilty to conspiracy to accept a bribe.  Today Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is expected to face charges.

Two of Kane’s biggest personal faults are coming back to haunt her:  her vindictiveness and her inability to tell the truth.  She will be accused of leaking grand jury testimony in order to damage the reputation of someone she disliked and then lying about it under oath.  Kane lies about everything and her penchant to get back at those she dislikes has turned her office into a disaster area.

In Reading an FBI a few weeks ago led to the first domino falling in Acosta.  A man who seemingly came out of nowhere to get a seat on City Council then get elected as Council President, he agreed to try and repeal an ethics law designed to restrict corruption.  The campaign finance caps prohibited anyone receiving no bid city contracts from contributing more than a set amount to a campaign.  Mayor Vaughn Spencer (obviously “elected official #1 in the indictment) faced a tough re-election campaign due to a failed first term and needed to have the ethics law repealed.  According to Acosta’s plea agreement he agreed to contribute $1800 to “elected official # 2” if Francis would repeal the ethics law.  He introduced a resolution to do just that but Council members with integrity successfully fought the action.

It appears that Mayor Vaughn Spencer will soon join Acosta in federal prison.  He accepted $84,000 from four persons who were limited by that law in what they could contribute to his campaign.  The Mayor routinely violated laws and ordinances during his term leading to constant battles with Council.  The legal fees from those fights amounted to more than $1 million for a cash strapped city unable to provide basic services.  He and Acosta are both cronies of State Representative Thomas Caltagirone who has run the Berks County Democratic Committee from behind the curtain for years.  One of his staffers ran Acosta’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor four years ago.  He and Spencer go way back.

The common denominator in the corruption in Reading and Allentown goes to consultant Mike Fleck.  This seems to have begun with the investigation of former Treasurer Rob McCord who pled guilty earlier in the year.  Fleck was his consultant in his failed campaign for Governor following Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s withdrawal from the race.  The Allentown City Hall offices were raided recently by the FBI and it has been reported that Fleck wore a wire against both Mayors before disappearing.  

I’ve known Fleck since he appeared on the scene running various Democratic campaigns.  No campaign he ran was legal and above board.  I even warned people running against his candidates to expect shenanigans.  There always were.  It’s no wonder that someone who had no regard for election laws would also violate other laws.  In the cases of McCord, Pawlowski and Spencer, this just goes to prove the old adage that when you sleep with stray dogs you get fleas.

When we combine these corruption scandals with the recent indictment of Congressman Chaka Fattah Pennsylvania Democrats have much work to do to clean up their act.  The Pennsylvania Democratic Party even hired Fleck’s consulting business for a time before severing the relationship.

Consultants are big business in politics.  They are paid well to manage and strategize campaigns for candidates.  A bad consultant, and they are legion, can do irreparable harm as Fleck has.  Shortly after the FBI raids in Allentown he dissolved his business and fled.  Acosta’s fall is simply the second domino to fall (after McCord) in what appears to be a succession of Democratic Mayors heading to prison.

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 May 18, 2011

Rick Santorum thinks John McCain doesn’t understand the value of torture.  It’s too bad McCain isn’t running this year because I’d love to watch the 2008 nominee turn to Santorum and say “I know torture, I’ve been tortured, you know nothing about torture or what it does.”  It would be a classic put down moment.  How stupid is Rick that he’d say something like that?  Did he forget McCain was tortured in North Vietnam?

Republicans succeeded in blocking passage yesterday of those oil industry welfare programs being halted.  President Obama targeted the $4 billion in taxpayer breaks given to giant energy corporations making billions while paying no taxes.  The GOP filibuster succeeded.  The tax breaks remain.

Today’s video is about protesters crashing the JP Morgan Chase shareholders meeting:

DEP actually fined Chesapeake Energy over $1 million for the Bradford County well explosion.  These “accidents” are the reason the Susquehanna River replaced the Delaware as the nation’s most endangered waterway.  In yet more Marcellus news DEP is citing Cabot for continuing problems in Dimock and Sen. Joe Scarnati is proposing that each well drilled be assessed a $10,000 impact fee.  Don’t confuse that with an extraction tax.

In litigation news an Appeals Court will not step in and void the settlement in the famous facebook case.  The Harvard twins who claim Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea settled for $20 million but aren’t happy.  I think I could be happy with $20 million.

In some election news yesterday Tom Caltagirone’s hand picked candidate for Mayor of Reading came in third in the Democratic primary.  This from the man going around telling people that he is the only Dem in the area who knows how to win elections?  His DJ candidate Judge Deb Lachina also lost.

Judge Michael Leonardziak never called me after I found two of his poll workers acting illegally at different polls yesterday.

Voters in Philadelphia actually cast ballots for a convicted criminal for Mayor.  In that crooked city it seems like poetic justice.  Michael Nutter still beat Milton Street however with 76% of the vote.   Not everyone there is insane.

In Northampton County a referendum on privatization of Gracedale, the county nursing home, was 3-1 in favor of keeping the facility public.

In Allegheny County Rich Fitzgrald beat Mark Flaherty for County Executive in the Dem primary and State Rep. Chelsa Wagner, the Auditor General’s niece, won the race for the County Controller slot on November’s ballot.

The Democratic race for Judge of Commonwealth Court is very close.  With most precincts now reporting Kathy Bookvar is slightly ahead 306,819 to 304,766 for Barbara Behrend Ernsberger.  This will likely go to a recount.

A gay activist threw glitter all over Newt yesterday.  Is he trying to make the man look good or something?  Sorry but that’s impossible.  I had Gingrich had his pants zipped this time.

Illegal Campaign Activity in Berks County

Kirk called me about his observation of illegal campaign activity so I drove into Reading to do some further investigation.  I wanted to confirm what had happened and give Judge Michael Leonardziak an opportunity to comment.  As I drove down the street past Southern Middle School I observed two campaign workers violating the ten foot rule.  No political activity can, by law, occur on election day within ten feet of a polling place.  I’ve been to this poll many times on many election days observing turnout so I knew these campaign workers were in violation.  I went around the block, parked and went in to speak with the Judge of Elections.

I asked her if she was allowing campaign activity inside her poll and she denied it at first before admitting, several times, “we let them inside the foyer”, clearly a violation of the law.  I aske dher why she was letting people violate the law and she began screaming at me and denying this was a violation.  The polls are directly inside the inner door so letting campaign workers inside or even just outside that door as I personally observed while entering the building, is illegal.

Judges of Election should know the law.  This woman screamed at me then ordered me out.  While I was still just inside the same foyer where she allowed politicking, she shoved me out the door amidst threats to have me arrested.  A Constable called me soon after for my side of the story and I inquired as to whether he would arrest her for assault.  

The campaign workers remained in violation when I drove away.

I then went to Amanda Stoudt Elementary School where Kirk had been given campaign literature when he entered the polling place this morning.  Inside the polling place a campaign worker for Reading Mayoral candidate Francis Acosta handed me political literature.  I went to the Judge of Elections there and asked her why someone gave me political material inside her polling place.  She was clueless and thought I was talking about Kirk’s experience earlier.  After explaining that is why I entered her poll I explained that it had just happened again.  I asked her why she didn’t know what was happening inside her poll.  She didn’t have an answer other than to say she allowed these people to enter the poll to use the bathrooms.  That’s illegal.  No one wearing any political buttons, stickers, or other ID can ever be inside a polling place on election day.

I then went to Acosta headquarters to ask why they let a campaign worker hand me material inside a poll.  V. Kurt Bellman, a former Berks County Elections Commissioner took the piece from me and asked several questions to ascertain there had, indeed, been a violation of law.  For those of you familiar with relations between Kurt and me you’ll appreciate the deliciousness of that moment.

District Judge Leonardziak allowed a campaign worker to violate the law.  Did he not instruct his election day workers on the law?  He’s a JUDGE for crying out loud and this goes directly to his fitness for office.  So far he hasn’t called me to explain the illegal activity on his behalf.  I went to his office and left my card.

This all follows the embarrassment of the Berks County Elections Board, composed of Common Pleas Court Judges, for sending to the District Attorney a bogus complaint from another District Judge candidate.  The rule on which the complaint was based was declared unconstitutional.  Does anyone, even Judges, in Berks County, know election law?  Or do they just not care?

Update:  I called Berks County Election Services and spoke with Deb Olivieri, Elections Commissioner, and she took care of everything.  She called me back to say she discussed my concerns with both precincts and dealt with the problems.  It has be frustrating because Deb does a very good job and she holds trainings for these people before each election.   They then go out and ignore everything.

The problem here is the quality of people they get for poll workers.  The jobs are hell because of the extremely long days and low rate of pay.  Perhaps if counties paid a decent wage to poll workers they’d attract better people.  Meanwhile they have to deal with those they get and these tend to be retired people who have the time to work on Tuesdays.  On average I believe they get around $90 for working from 7 AM to 9PM.  Therein is the problem.