Former top aide to Ed Rendell gets probation in pay-to-play probe

HARRISBURG – For years, John H. Estey – former top aide to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell – surreptitiously recorded Pennsylvania power brokers and cooperated with FBI agents running an elaborate sting probing a pay-to-play culture in the capital.

But anyone looking for answers on exactly whom the well-connected Ardmore lawyer targeted -- and how his aid furthered the investigation – might have been disappointed Thursday. A hearing that ostensibly closed the case on Estey’s role as a cooperator ended in an anticlimactic way: with a sentence of one year of probation and few clues about what he did to earn it.

An openly sympathetic U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III made only veiled reference to Estey’s years of work with the FBI and said a prison term would be counterproductive. He urged the 54-year-old to stop beating himself up for the crime that snared him – pocketing $13,000 from a phony company set up by investigators.

“Enough is enough,” Jones said. “This is both a sentencing and a pep talk. It’s time to turn the page.”

When it came time for him to address the judge, Estey made no reference to those whom he helped federal agents ensnare.

“I have no excuse to offer the court,” he said of his own conduct. “I knew what I did was wrong, and I did it.”

He walked out of the courthouse a free man, flanked by family, friends, and his lawyers, Ronald Levine and James Eisenhower.

It was a remarkable conclusion to what sources familiar with the investigation once described as the most ambitious public corruption probe in Harrisburg in years – one that so far has produced mixed results, at least publicly.

Those sources likened Estey to the first domino to fall in a chain reaction that led to charges against others, including former state Treasurer Rob McCord.

Acting for agents, Estey secretly recorded McCord shaking down campaign donors during the 2014 gubernatorial race. The evidence prompted McCord a year later to plead guilty and become a secret cooperator.

Other charges followed – including against former Treasurer Barbara Hafer, and McCord donor and Chester County businessman Richard Ireland.

But McCord’s disastrous turn as a government witness against Ireland last month prompted the same judge, Jones, to throw out that case at mid-trial.

It remains unclear whether Estey played any role in the cases against Ireland or Hafer, or whether other indictments stemming from his cooperation loom.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Consiglio declined to comment as he left court Thursday.

Under federal guidelines, Estey faced up to two months in prison. In explaining his sentence, Jones acknowledged that some might misunderstand his leniency. (He also imposed a $5,100 fine and 100 hours of community service.)

Jones said he was swayed in part by more than 50 letters of support he received from high-profile politicians, public servants, lawyers, and charity workers vouching for Estey’s character and remorse. The letter writers included former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, government aides, cabinet officials, and Estey’s old boss, Rendell.

“I’m convinced that [Estey’s] conduct was utterly aberrational,” the judge said. “Thirty years of public service should count for something, and it certainly does.”

The same list of contacts who stepped forward in letters was what made Estey attractive to agents looking to break open backroom dealing in Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

As Rendell’s former gubernatorial chief of staff and a top mayoral aide, Estey had spent two decades cultivating a network across political, business, and charitable worlds. He had served as chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, and the Independence Visitor Center, and as a top official at the Hershey Trust Co.

In 2008, he left government service and began working as a lobbyist. Within a year, he was representing the executives at a Florida-based textbook recycling company. Unbeknownst to him, the men were undercover FBI agents.

They set up their phony business – Textbook Bio-Solutions, based in a Fort Lauderdale strip mall  -- in 2009 and hired Estey and a Harrisburg lobbying firm to make campaign contributions for them. They purported to want to buy books from public schools to give to “impoverished nations” or to recycle into pellet fuel as an alternative heating source. Estey concocted a plan to ensure that legislation was introduced to help them.

The agents gave him $20,000 to pass along as donations to lawmakers’ campaigns, circumventing laws that ban corporate gifts and the use of lobbyists as “pass-throughs.” Estey kept two-thirds of that money for himself. Prosecutors have not disclosed which lawmakers received shares of the remaining $7,000.

Around the same time, a bill was introduced to require schools to send unwanted textbooks to licensed recycling centers. It passed the Senate unanimously but never got a vote in the House. Jones noted Thursday that Estey came clean after he was confronted by the agents in April 2012 and never made excuses for his conduct.

He had none to offer Thursday, either.

 “I lost sight of the legal and ethical underpinnings that underscore a life in public service and slipped down a black hole of moral relativism,” Estey said. “I lost my way.”

 Staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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