PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The city of Reading was in financial distress. In 2011, it ranked as one of the poorest cities in Pennsylvania and the nation.
Crime was rampant. Taxes were too low to fund schools. Residents and businesses were moving away. Grass sat uncut in parks and streets uncleaned. Crumbling infrastructure spilled sewage into city waterways.
This is the unflattering portrait ex-Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer painted of his lifetime home on the stand Tuesday in his federal bribery trial.
“Except for the four years I was in college, I’ve spent all my life in the city of Reading,” the 71-year-old Spencer testified.
Called as a witness by his defense attorney Geoffrey Johnson, Spencer described the jobs that led him to local politics: a brief stint for Boy Scouts of America, followed by a 37-year career teaching social studies and history in the Reading School District.
In 2000, the president of city council asked Spencer to serve as a councilman for one of Reading’s six districts. He ran for council president and won the following year. It was a grassroots campaign, he said, done with friends that wanted to see him be successful without the aid of campaign consultants.
Following this, Spencer led two unsuccessful campaigns for mayor in 2003 and 2007. His goal in holding office: to correct some of the problems that plagued Reading.
“It wasn’t a real sophisticated campaign,” Spencer said, describing it as a lot of door knocking with a few small fundraising events. A lot of people were critical of the fact he didn’t have an organized campaign, he testified, saying some large businesses and unions wouldn’t donate for this reason.
In the interim, he retired from teaching in 2008, served as council president three more times and developed relationships with department heads in the city of Reading by going to meetings.
On his third mayoral campaign in 2011, he won.
“What changed was I brought on a person to manage my campaign,” Spencer said.
This person was Michael Fleck, a campaign consultant who pleaded guilty in 2016 to bribery offenses and conspiracy to commit extortion. In hiring Fleck, Spencer testified that things were more organized. He had street lists. Event coordination. Even a functioning campaign office.
“Some of the people that helped me on the other campaigns couldn’t believe the difference,” Spencer said.
The large staff made things more expensive, he said, but large donors were now willing to contribute.
As mayor, Spencer said his day would start with breakfasts or meetings. He met with department heads at least twice a month. He had time where citizens could come meet with him. He also gave businesses his personal line in case they had any issues, and he went to schools.
He said he transitioned all employees over from the last mayor’s term to “keep morale going,” with the understanding with the managing director would be looking at performance.
Because Reading had filed for Act 47, a state oversight program for financially distressed cities in Pennsylvania, Spencer testified that he was especially sensitive to spending within his office.
“We got to the point where we had borrowed like $9 million,” he said. For this reason, he testified that he was always was sensitive about whether they were going with the lowest bidder when awarding city contracts.
He said he openly questioned how review committees for contracts were set up, and that price was not weighted more heavily on the city’s review score sheet, considering its Act 47 status.
This is why, Spencer testified, a contract for Reading’s secondary digester project in 2012 caught his eye.
Spencer said he signed the memo from his review committee recommending Entech Engineering for the project because he thought it meant Entech had been the lowest bidder.
When he found out on a call with a T&M Engineering employee that T&M had put in the lower bid, Spencer testified that an assistant whom he asked to investigate reported that the score sheets rated T&M the highest.
T&M, which also happened to be a big campaign supporter of Spencer’s, ultimately received the contract.
Looking at the jury, Spencer testified that he was unaware of contributions at that time, and that contributions did not factor into the review he ordered.
“It appears that the recommendations that were coming through did not see the urgency of cost,” he said.
Before the prosecution rested last week, city officials told the jury that cost was just one point the review committee considered, but that capacity to finish the project was a big factor.
Spencer took the stand after his defense team brought two other witnesses before the jury. During the time in question, Carol Synder and Ralph Johnson worked as the city’s managing director and director of public works, respectively. Both testified that, although they were aware the mayor had preferred certain firms over another, they had not been forced by Spencer to sign off on firms he favored.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek suggested on cross-examination that they went along with Spencer’s suggestions because they knew the mayor could fire them at any time.
Spencer returns to the witness stand Wednesday, as his trial enters Day 8.