Prosecutors recommend 30 years for ex-Scranton mayor

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Bill Courtright pleaded guilty to corruption charges and resigned as Scranton mayor last July.

Federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania are recommending a prison sentence of up to 30 years for former Scranton Mayor Bill Courtright, according to unsealed court documents.

Courtright's lawyer, Paul Walker, is seeking a lighter sentence and called the sentencing-formula calculations by the U.S. Attorney's Office "arbitrary and improper and result in an egregious enhancement of the guideline range."

Courtright, 62, resigned last July and pleaded guilty to three felony pay-to-play public corruption charges in a Williamsport federal court. The case has since been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Malachy Mannion of the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Scranton, though no sentencing date has been set since a November postponement.

Federal guidelines, though no longer mandatory, still play significant roles in sentencing, especially in calculations involving economic loss.

"It is truly a judgment call for Judge Mannion," said Anthony Sabino, a Mineola, New York, attorney and St. John's University law professor.

"The essential sticking point is the calculation of economic loss from the wrongs the former mayor pleaded guilty to. Quite naturally, his defense team is seeking to minimize the raw dollars involved, while the prosecution seeks to maximize the economic harm the defendant did to taxpayers," Sabino said.

"While the truth is probably in between, the fact that this is a public corruption case increases the likelihood that the court will count every dollar possible against the defendant, and enhance the sentence accordingly."

According to a filing by U.S. Attorney David Freed, the U.S. Probation Office calculated sentencing guidelines based on Courtright's status as a high-ranking public official, leadership enhancement, multiple bribes involved and the benefit to the briber.

Freed said evidence makes clear that "Company No. 1," identified in other court filings as tax-collection firm Northeast Revenue Service of Plains, Pennsylvania, bribed Courtright over years to ensure that it kept tax and refuse-fee collection contracts.

Prosecutors allege that the company received nearly $3 million in profits by retaining the contract from 2015 to 2019. They said Courtright should be responsible for $50,000 in bribes received.

Evidence obtained after Courtright's guilty plea, according to Freed's filing, suggests that the Lackawanna County Tax Claim Bureau offered an inexpensive alternative to the contract with Northeast Revenue, "which would have saved the City of Scranton substantially."

Evidence, Freed said, also suggests that Courtright's office stalled such an alternative so Northeast Revenue could keep its contract.

Walker said the federal calculation belies that the contract, and two modifiecations, existed before Courtright took office. "Moreover, there was no predicate factual foundation to establish that Courtright did accept in excess of $50,000 in payments as alleged in the [pre-sentencing report]," he said. Walker pegged the amount at $18,000.

Courtright, a former council member and city tax collector, was elected mayor in 2013 and re-elected four years later.

"Let’s remember this is the former mayor of Scranton," Sabino said. "The power and prestige he once enjoyed will now haunt him, since it materially boosts the government’s claim that he was a ringleader of this wrongful conduct, and his sentence should be maximized for that reason."

Scranton, the 77,000-population seat of Lackawanna County, has struggled with chronic budget imbalance and unfunded pension liability. Its credibility in the capital markets plummeted in 2012 when it missed a bond payment to the local parking authority amid a political dispute. Its bonds are junk.

S&P Global Ratings, the only agency that rates the city, assigns its BB-plus rating, one level into speculative grade. S&P in August 2017 upgraded the city from BB after it sold its sewer system and earmarked a majority of sale proceeds to retire more than $40 million in high-coupon debt.

The city has been looking to exit the state-sponsored Act 47 program for distressed communities, in which it has labored since 1992.

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