Indicted Pennsylvania Mayor Puts Blame on Campaign Staff

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – When Vaughn Spencer lent his campaign $25,000 out of his personal retirement account, he knew there was a chance he wouldn’t get it back. But, the ex-Pennsylvania mayor told the jury Wednesday, he wasn’t worried about his debt.

“I don’t know why it kept coming up because these were my monies that I put in,” Spencer said Wednesday, continuing a second day of testimony in a federal bribery trial where he stands charged of steering pay-to-play contracts. “I consciously knew what it meant when I decided to loan my campaign money.”

Former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer departs from the federal courthouse in Philadelphia in August. (Associated Press)

Spencer had been elected mayor of Reading in 2011 but he lost re-election in 2015. He testified that it became a major focus for his campaign counselor Sam Ruchlewicz after that primary loss to bring in enough donations so the mayor could recoup his loan.

On direct examination from his attorney, Geoffrey Johnson, Spencer began the day with a focus on several conversations he had surrounding campaign contributions in 2015, both before and after the election. Spencer testified that in July 2015, he became suspicious of his campaign counselors attempting to retire his debt by getting involved with a company linked to AECOM, an engineering firm applying for one of the city’s pumping station projects.

Ruchlewicz had been cooperating with the FBI’s investigation for about a year at that point, so the jury has had the opportunity to hear several recordings of Spencer’s conversations. In the one his attorney played Wednesday, Spencer is heard talking to Ruchlewicz and his campaign manager, Michael Fleck, voicing a preference that McTish and Kunkel Engineering, partner to AECOM, get the project.

“I was lying to Sam because I didn’t trust what Mike and Sam were saying,” Spencer said. “From the end of this campaign meeting up through this whole process.”

Spencer also testified that he rarely saw his campaign counselors at the office leading up to the primary. Because his schedule before the election was tight, however, he didn’t think replacing his campaign team would be feasible. He’d already lost volunteers because people were getting frustrated at his campaign’s lack of organization, he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan cross-examined Spencer Wednesday afternoon as an audience of 15 watched from the courtroom benches.

Morgan asked Spencer if he was paying Ruchlewicz to give him advice he didn’t trust. The mayor responded that he was, but that Ruchlewicz had only recently lied to him.

“I wasn’t involved in a quid pro quo,” the mayor said.

“You were just pretending to be with someone you didn’t trust?” Morgan asked. Spencer responded yes.

Morgan also brought up a taped 2014 conversation that took place the day the city signed a contract to T&M Engineering. Spencer asked his campaign manager if T&M had contributed anything.

“Did we get anything from T&M, because they were applying for the 6th and Canal pump station project, and I cleared it for them,” Spencer said on the tape.

Skewering the witness with the recording, Morgan asked: “Contribution because of contract. That’s essentially what you said here, correct?”

No, Spencer said, explaining that the tape merely showed a “poor choice of words” in what he thought was a private conversation.

“I did not give them the contract,” he maintained, but he said he was asking about a contribution because he had made an effort to help them get it.

Earlier Spencer testified that he had the city’s best interests in mind in trying to award the contract to T&M.

“I did use the process to determine that T&M was the low bid and highest rated for the job,” he said.

Spencer was dismissed from the stand at the end of the day Wednesday. Closing arguments for this trial will commence at 9 a.m. Thursday morning, Day 9 of proceedings.

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