Ex-Allentown mayor's 15-year prison term sends message on corruption

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Former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski's fall ended with a heavy thud Tuesday when a federal judge imposed a 15-year sentence for his conviction in a pay-to-play corruption scheme from 2012 to 2015.

Juan Sánchez imposed the sentencing in a crowded courtroom at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Allentown. The drama began three years ago with an FBI raid at City Hall.

Prosecutors had sought 13 to 15 years while Pawlowski's defense team had sought fewer than 10.

A jury on March 1 convicted Pawlowski after a six-week trial on 47 of 54 counts revolving around the issuance of city contracts and other business. He resigned one week later.

Pawlowski, 53 and mayor for 12 years, left the courtroom on downtown Hamilton Street in handcuffs. He spent Tuesday night at nearby Lehigh County Jail pending his assignment to a federal prison.

"I cannot trust him." Sánchez said in denying him bail.

Three years of supervised release will follow the prison sentence. Pawlowski must also pay more than $93,000 in restitution.

"My immediate reaction is not shock," said David Fiorenza, a Villanova School of Business professor and former chief financial officer of Radnor Township, Pennsylvania.

"This was not harsh. A sentencing was expected but the message it sends to public sector is to be ethical in all your daily duties and have a fiscal fiduciary responsibility to the constituents of their respective jurisdictions."

A parade of 46 witnesses on behalf of Pawlowski and the mayor's own plea for mercy left Sánchez unmoved. The judge said he sensed "no apologies, no contrition” in Pawlowski's comments.

"We are extremely pleased," Deputy U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen told reporters. "The citizens of Allentown have been waiting a long time for this day to come, and it has."

Crimes included conspiracy to commit wire fraud; honest services mail fraud; honest services wire fraud; bribery; Travel Act bribery; bribery-soliciting; attempted Hobbs Act extortion; and material false statements to the FBI.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Anthony Wzorek and Michelle Morgan prosecuted the case.

"He sold the mayor's office to the highest bidder," Lappen said. "If you wanted to do business with the City of Allentown, you had to line the pockets of this mayor with campaign contributions."

Pawlowski is appealing the conviction. His attorney, Jack McMahon called the sentence "outrageous."

"We knew he was going to get a substantial amount of time, but that amount of time was simply cruel,” McMahon said. "But the judge did what he did and we have to take the next steps."

Pawlowski, a Chicago native and a former Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania governor, resigned on March 9, ending a 12-year reign in which corruption ultimately eclipsed large-scale economic development as his legacy.

"Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best," he said as he approached the courtroom hand in hand with his wife, Lisa.

Under Pawlowski’s watch, 120,000-population Allentown launched several economic development initiatives, two of which, considered together, won The Bond Buyer’s Northeast Deal of the Year award in 2013.

The Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority sold $224.4 million in bonds to finance the construction of a downtown business district, centered around the PPL Center, an 8,500-seat arena.

To help cover a large unfunded pension liability, Allentown leased its water and sewer system to the quasi-public Lehigh County Authority, which sold $308 million of bonds to finance the transaction.

Separately, the city built a minor-league baseball stadium, Coca-Cola Park.

Ray O’Connell, former Allentown City Council president and a former school administrator in the city, is filling out Pawlowski's term, which runs through 2019.

"Mayor O'Connor will need to be even more transparent than he has already been and that will include informing the public of each and every adopted recommended practice for management and finance for the city of Allentown," Fiorenza said.

The federal case was part of an overall corruption sweep in Pennsylvania that included Reading, 40 miles southwest of Allentown.

Still awaiting sentencing are seven people who pleaded guilty in Allentown or Reading cases.

They are Mike Fleck, Pawlowski's former campaign manager; former Reading mayor Vaughn Spence and his chief of staff, Eron Lloyd; former Allentown Controller Mary Ellen Koval; engineers Matthew McTish and Mark Neisser; and Allentown real estate developer Ramzi Haddad.

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Corruption Ed Pawlowski City of Allentown, PA Pennsylvania