In Allentown, a mayor's federal corruption trial casts pall over revitalizing city

ALLENTOWN — Mayor Ed Pawlowski took the lectern in a third-floor conference room above the city’s symphony hall and pointed to the windows.

“Remember what this looked like 12 years ago?” he said. “The building across the street was a boarded-up hunk of junk.” The crowd in the room — local business owners, the chief of police, and a handful of politicians — laughed appreciatively. Across the street now sits a complex that includes a Renaissance Hotel, a slew of restaurants, and a multipurpose arena.

They said Allentown could never do it, Pawlowski reminded the room. But this Rust Belt city — with the help of developers and state tax dollars — is in the midst of revitalization, with its once-downtrodden downtown now a Neighborhood Improvement Zone that won an international award for land use.

It’s an accomplishment Pawlowski enthusiastically claimed credit for during his campaign last year for a fourth term in office – and one that now lies at the heart of his federal corruption trial, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday, two weeks after he was sworn in.

The 54-count indictment that federal prosecutors unveiled in July alleges Pawlowski’s involvement in a pay-to-play scheme that expanded as Allentown’s fortunes rose and public-works contracts multiplied. But his role in the city’s revitalization is also likely why, despite the charges against him, the mustachioed 51-year-old was narrowly reelected last year. And his lawyers are planning to cite his contributions to the city in their defense at trial.

The son of a Polish restaurant owner from Chicago, Pawlowski moved to Allentown to oversee a housing development corporation in the mid-1990s, and first ran for mayor in 2005. He ran, briefly, for governor (2014) and U.S. senator (2015).

In the July indictment, he and two others were accused of conspiracy, bribery, attempted extortion, honest services fraud, lying to the FBI, and other charges. The case is the product of a four-year investigation that has implicated dozens of city employees and contractors in the pay-to-play scheme and elicited guilty pleas from 17 conspirators.

As jury selection is set to begin Tuesday in Allentown, prosecutors have intimated that they have more than 50 witnesses and 100 secret recordings that implicate Pawlowski and others in extorting campaign contributions from businesses seeking government work in Pennsylvania’s third-largest city between 2012 and 2015.

The list of government witnesses and people featured in secret FBI recordings reads like the payroll at Allentown City Hall, filled with government workers from the city’s finance, parks and recreation, public works, and IT departments.

The day he was charged, Pawlowski denied the allegations and told reporters he was “deeply hurt” that his integrity had been called into question. But since then, he has remained largely silent on the specifics of the case. (U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez has barred lawyers – and Pawlowski himself – from discussing the matter outside of court.)

And so Pawlowski’s speech at the symphony hall earlier this month was, necessarily, a buoyant “state of the city” address in which he didn’t mention his legal woes once. Instead, he rattled off statistics on how many trees the city had planted in 2017, excitedly discussed plans for Allentown’s first dog park, and highlighted significant signs of growth, such as the unemployment rate dropping from 13 percent in 2014 to 6 percent in 2017.

But the trial looms. “I’m looking forward to it,” he told a reporter in a brief interview just before the speech, adding that he is innocent and confident that a jury will agree with him. Still, he said, the case was “a cloud” hanging over his accomplishments as mayor. “I’ll be happy when it’s over.”

The transformation of Allentown that occurred during Pawlowski’s three terms as mayor also is central to his defense.

His lawyer, Jack McMahon, has maintained that local businesspeople weren’t shaken down for campaign contributions with promises of lucrative city contracts. Instead, he argued at a court hearing in Philadelphia this month, they supported Pawlowski because of the renaissance he brought to their city.

“If the tapes say, ‘I’m giving you money because you have saved Allentown,’ not because they are getting a contract, that goes to the primary issue of negating criminal intent,” McMahon said.

Prosecutors, however, have asked the judge to bar Pawlowski from grandstanding on his record in office.

“Whether Mr. Pawlowski was instrumental in having many buildings built in the city of Allentown over the last 20 years … is immaterial,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek said. “Mr. Pawlowski shouldn’t be able to get up there and tout his political experience. It has nothing to do with the case.”

Still, it’s his political experience that has many in Allentown adopting a wait-and-see approach to the trial.

Many at the state-of-the-city speech this month, including Allentown’s police chief, declined to talk about the trial but were happy to hold forth on the city’s revitalization.

“The turnaround has been almost unimaginable,” said Tony Ianelli, the president of the Greater Lehigh Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the speech. Still, he said, the trial has Allentonians “living in a very unusual universe. It’s a very interesting, very volatile time.”

State Rep. Peter Schweyer, a former City Council member elected to the state House in 2015, called the charges “really frustrating.” He said the trial could knock the shine off the economic turnaround Allentown has enjoyed under Pawlowski — and added that the city’s state grants have been subject to closer scrutiny from Gov. Wolf’s administration.

The administration hasn’t withheld money from the city, Schweyer said. But he said that during the grant-application process, state employees will ask, “Does this grant have anything to do with any of the accusations?”

“It’s overall trust issues — an added level of scrutiny,” he said.

Candida Affa, the vice president of the Allentown City Council — whose members spent much of the summer unsuccessfully trying to force Pawlowski to resign — said the trial has cast a pall over a city that, for once, had something to celebrate.

“It hurts my heart, because what everyone sees now is the perception of corruption,” she said. “It hurts because we were on such an upswing.”

Still, she’s as thrilled as anyone by the improvements Pawlowski spurred in the city, she said. “I’m proud of our city and proud of what the mayor has done,” she said. “I wish him luck. This, too, shall pass.”