PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Kicking off the corruption trial of a former Pennsylvania mayor, a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday that Vaughn Spencer took as many bribes as he could to rack up as campaign funds.
“That was the mindset of the man holding that office of mayor: Just don’t get caught,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek said, looking straight at the jury of seven men and five women in the Philadelphia federal courthouse.
Though the FBI raided Spencer’s home and Reading City Hall in 2015, he was only indicted last year on the same day that the government charged former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
Spencer, 71, faces nine counts of bribery, one of wire fraud and one of conspiracy. Prosecutor Wzorek explained Monday that he will present evidence over the next week that Spencer’s office was involved in a series of pay-to-play schemes.
“In its simplest terms, this means, ‘give me money and I’ll give you a contract with the City of Reading,’” said Wzorek.
Previewing the government’s evidence, Wzorek said they have documents and FBI-recorded audio of Spencer talking about overriding picks made by city selection committees to award contracts to two local engineering firms — T&M Engineering and McTish, Kunkel & Associates — because of their generous contributions.
Wzorek said also told jurors that Spencer tried to bribe the president of Reading’s City Council because it had restricted the amount of money city officials could receive from individuals in 2013. Elected to office in 2012, Spencer had already exceeded the $2,600 limit with contributions from local businessmen, one of whom included Albert Boscov, the late longtime head of Boscov’s Department stores.
“There is nothing wrong with contributing money to a candidate of your own choice,” Wzorek said. “But there is something wrong with pay to play.”
Defense attorney Jeffrey Johnson said his case would likely take one or two days to build, and would be based on disproving that Spencer actually performed any services that benefitted his campaign supporters.
“The receipt or payment of a campaign contribution is only illegal if the contributions are given to perform or not perform an official act,” Johnson told jurors. “There has never been an explicit promise to exchange campaign contributions for an official act.”
Spencer’s defense has been a popular one for politicians accused of corruption since the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of former Virginia Bob McDonnell. Loosening federal anti-bribery laws in that 2016 decision, the Supreme Court said that mere access is not enough to prove an illegal quid pro quo.
Defense attorney Johnson went on Monday to say that Spencer had a legal reason for overriding the selection committee’s recommendation: because all committee members were not present to interview potential contractors, the lowest bidding, highest-rated contractor was not selected for the job the first time around.
Chief U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez, the judge presiding over the case, said he hoped to have closing arguments Aug. 29 or 30.