PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The ex-Pennsylvania mayor stared blankly Thursday evening as his charges were read off in court for his involvement in a pay-to-play scheme, trading public-works contracts for campaign contributions. Again and again, the jury foreman repeated the same verdict: guilty.
After an nine-day trial, the five-man, four-woman panel had found sufficient evidence to convict Vaughn Spencer, former mayor of Reading, on all 11 counts — eight of soliciting a bribe, as well as single counts of offering a bribe, wire fraud and conspiracy.
Just a few hours earlier, those assembled in the Philadelphia federal courthouse had sat silently as Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan approached the jury box to deliver closing arguments.
When Morgan spoke, her first words were Spencer’s.
“So you know, we’re paying him money and the motherfucker didn’t do a thing — nothing, Sam. I mean not a goddamn thing,” she recited.
Pulled from one of the 390 eight-hour recordings made by Spencer’s campaign consultant and FBI informant Sam Ruchlewicz, Morgan said, these words depict the mindset of the man in the mayor’s office for the city of Reading.
“This for that. Quid pro quo. Pay-to-play,” Morgan said.
Spencer accepted campaign donations as bribes from engineering companies, Morgan said, intending to reciprocate this generosity by awarding the companies contracts with the city. He also attempted to bribe Reading’s city council president to pass an ordinance that would allow him to keep unlimited campaign funds.
Summarizing the evidence she and her co-counsel Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzurik had presented over the last two weeks, she urged jurors to think carefully about the charges against Spencer.
“You are going to have to decide what was in his mind based on his actions and based on his words,” she said, reminding them that it is the solicitation that is the crime and the offer of the bribe.
Morgan also said that quid pro quo can exist even if the terms were never stated out loud, urging the jury to consider the credibility of the witnesses and their motivations when testifying.
“There are no magic words,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be spoken out loud.”
She also submitted that Spencer had lied to them from the stand and that his testimony was illogical and not credible.
“What you heard was one long political campaign speech filled with lies,” she said. “He thinks he can talk his way out of anything. He tried it with the FBI and now he’s trying it with you.
“Over and over, he engaged in a quid pro quo — explicitly,” she continued. “You don’t have to wonder. He told you on these tapes.”
Defense attorney Geoffrey Johnson argued meanwhile that the tapes told a different story.
One of a deliberate, thoughtful and soft-spoken man who started his career in politics running grassroots campaigns, going door-to-door, driven by the dream of being mayor of the city he grew up in and pulling it out of financial disarray.
Each and every element of each and every charge must be proven beyond a reasonable out, he reminded jurors.
“If the government fails on that element then you must return a not-guilty verdict on that charge,” Johnson said.
He then shifted his argument to frame Ruchlewicz as the source of all the mayor’s potential pay-to-play follies. He stated that Ruchlewicz was responsible first to himself, then to FBI, then Fleck, then Spencer.
“Sam worked for Sam,” Johnson said. “And Sam was Sam’s top priority.”
He went on to say that Ruchlewicz thought of the mayor as clueless, stupid and naive, and that because he clearly he had no respect for Spencer, he purposefully put him in bad situations. Furthermore, that the government had been manipulated by Ruchlewicz as well.
The jury took less than three hours to convict. Spencer, 71, will remain free until his sentencing at a date to be determined. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years for wire fraud charge, 10 years for bribery and five years on conspiracy, in addition to up to $750,000 in fines.
“While Vaughn Spencer was only a one-term mayor, he’s done lasting damage to the city of Reading by compromising the public trust,” Michael Harpster, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division, said in a statement. “Putting his own interests above those of the people he was elected to serve, he repeatedly engineered quid pro quos meant to pad his campaign coffers. The jury’s swift verdict is a testament to the strength of the government’s case.”
U.S. Attorney William McSwain thanked the jury for its verdict.
“If public officials do not play by the rules, then no one will,” the prosecutor said in a statement.