Feds Dig Into Ex-Reading Mayor’s Sway on City Contracts

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — One witness in to his federal bribery trial, the former mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania, looked nervous — bringing a bottle of water to his lips with a hand that shook visibly — as his attorneys began to cross-examine the city’s purchasing department coordinator.

Accused of steering lucrative city contracts to companies that lined his campaign fund, Vaughn Spencer faces 11 counts of bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy.

Tammi Reinhart took the stand Tuesday as the government’s first witness to describe both the process by which Reading awards engineering contracts, and more specifically the process it went through to award one particular contract for a digester project at the city’s wastewater treatment facility, which services 150,000 people.

Regarding the latter, Reinhart said Spencer and department heads had already ready signed off on the recommendation of the city’s selection committee when suddenly the mayor reconsidered. Spencer wanted a second set of interviews with the top two rated applicants.

Showing more calm than his client, defense attorney Geoffrey Johnson leisurely flipped through papers at the podium before asking the witness why a selection committee she’d been on in 2014 hadn’t initially chosen the lowest bidding contractor to design the digester.

“We didn’t think they could complete the job properly,” Reinhart answered, referring to T&M Associates. The strength of their proposal, she continued, was based on one sole employee’s expertise in wastewater systems. And the bulk of the committee’s points were allotted based on the experience of firm, its staff and their references — not price, she clarified.

Reinhart allowed that the committee had scored T&M the highest based on its technical proposal, but she called it troubling that Entech, the company that won the selection committee’s initial recommendation, did not get the contract.

In addition to complaining about the deal to her managing director, Reinhart said she refused to be involved in recommending T&M to the City Council for approval. After this, Reinhart testified, Spencer again overruled the selection committee when it recommended that a sewer project go to the engineering firm Rummel, Klepper & Kahl. Again the contract went to T&M.

Reading’s grants coordinator, Cynthia DeGroote, testified next for the government. Though DeGroote had scored the proposals of the city’s committee for the wastewater-treatment contract, she said didn’t find out that T&M had won that contract until two years later when someone from the FBI contacted her about it.

“I can’t say for sure,” DeGroote said again and again to Spencer’s lawyer as he asked about such details as who had asked her to participate on the selection committee.

Witness No. 3, Charles Jones, worked for city as a public works director and city engineer during Spencer’s time in office. He was a civil engineer by training and was on the selection committee for the wastewater treatment project.

“It’s common practice to award engineering projects based on tech expertise and qualifications — sometimes the price is included and sometimes it’s not even included at all,” Jones explained, later noting that he spent at least two hours reviewing each proposal.

Although Jones had not said anything to his superiors when Spencer overrode the committee’s decision to send the project to T&M, he testified Tuesday that the move had bothered him.

“It’s a long, tedious process to go through all these proposals,” Jones said. “When that recommendation is changed at an upper level, that creates problems for us.”

In April, an engineer with T&M, Mark Neisser, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery. Neisser will be called as a witness for the prosecution later in the trial.

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