Did Reading mayor funnel Local 98 money?

Reading, Pa. mayor Vaughn Spencer.

Four days before the fall 2011 election, the Democrat running for mayor of Reading took a road trip to Philadelphia.

Vaughn Spencer, a retired teacher who had led Reading's City Council for a decade, drove for more than an hour, to the Spring Garden Street headquarters of the electricians' union, Local 98.

There, a $30,000 check awaited him - the largest donation to his campaign.

That same day, his campaign wrote checks of $10,000 each to two Philadelphia City Council candidates, Bill Rubin and Bill Green. Though Spencer had not contributed to either before, Local 98 had - $10,600 to Rubin, the maximum allowed under Philadelphia's contribution limits, and $10,000 to Green, $600 short of the limit.

The Berks County elections board investigated - and two years later concluded Spencer's campaign had agreed to funnel extra money from Local 98 to Rubin and Green, in violation of the city's contribution limits and state law, which bars making campaign donations in someone else's name.

Neither Spencer nor his campaign manager, Michael Fleck, had "a credible explanation for why Local 98 contributed to Spencer's campaign or why Spencer's campaign contributed to Rubin and Green," the board concluded in November. Without the Local 98 money, the Spencer campaign didn't have enough cash to make the contributions.

Spencer won by 1,300 votes. A call last week from The Inquirer seeking his reasons for aiding the two Philadelphia campaigns was returned by his lawyer, Geoffrey R. Johnson. Johnson cited a letter he'd written to the Berks board saying it had no authority to do anything except refer the matter to prosecutors. Instead, he said, it had acted as "prosecutor, judge, and executioner."

Johnson said the report unfairly omitted Fleck's testimony about why the checks were written - out of "a belief that by making these contributions Spencer would increase his profile and gain greater access to campaign financing statewide and particularly from Philadelphia in future elections."

Berks officials sent their findings to county prosecutors and Philadelphia's Ethics Board. Those agencies declined to say whether they were investigating.

- Bob Warner