PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Darting his gaze back and forth from his personal monitor to the screen for the public, the ex-Pennsylvania mayor accused of a pay-to-play scheme looked Wednesday like he was watching a tennis match.
Every so often, Vaughn Spencer tilted his head as he watched and then whispered to his attorney.
Scrolling on the screens were the transcripts of six staticky audio recordings of conversations between the office of the Reading mayor — a position Spencer held from 2012 until 2016 — and Mark Neisser, the former regional marketing manager of T&M Associates.
Months before Spencer was indicted in July 2017 by a federal grand jury, Neisser pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery concerning contracts awarded to T&M. The 65-year-old took agreed to testify at Spencer’s trial in hopes of leniency at sentencing. He took the stand Wednesday afternoon as prosecutors played these tapes for jurors.
“This is based on my conversation with the mayor and the notes that I inherited from one of our formal employees,” a voice on an October 2014 recording said. “Mayor Spencer talked to someone in T&M and asked for a yearly sponsorship of $2,500 and for a $1,000 of that to be brought to the spring brunch.”
Identifying this voice as that of Sam Ruchlewicz — a former political consultant employed by the mayor — Neisser confirmed it was him on the other end of the call. At the time, Neisser was on a committee within T&M specially created to award money to political campaigns. He testified that T&M’s relationship with the city of Reading began in January of 2012 when the company gave $1,500 to Spencer for an inauguration event.
Neisser was one of three people from his firm who attended the event and met Spencer. It came as a surprise to Neisser a few months later, he said, that Reading had not selected T&M for a contract to build an anaerobic digester for the city.
“I got several phone calls from other staff members about it,” Neisser said. “We called Sam and asked what was going on since we were the low bid and didn’t get the job.”
Although the contract had already been decided, Spencer arranged a second round of interviews, and the $205,000 contract landed then at T&M’s feet. Neisser testified that T&M gave another contribution to Spencer shortly after this contract was awarded. Made out to Citizens for Greater Reading from a T&M political action committee, the check for $1,000 was $500 over the legal limit set by Reading City Council for campaign contributions.
Neisser said they eventually had to take $500 of their donation back.
“Unfortunately in our business and others it’s pretty common that campaign contributions are important to get work,” Neisser said.
The next year in February 2013, the city of Reading asked for bids for a short-term $192,000 wastewater-treatment plant project. Prosecutors played for the jury Wednesday a recording of a wiretapped call between Neisser and Ruchlewicz. Speaking for the mayor, Ruchlewicz said that although Spencer had been trying to push T&M toward the finish line, the company’s president was not returning his calls.
In a second phone call, Ruchlewicz explained that the mayor’s office had set up another PAC that would allow T&M to vault Reading’s $500 campaign contribution limit.
“That doesn’t have an effect on the Reading pay-to-play?” jurors heard Neisser ask Ruchlewicz. No, Ruchlewicz said, because it’s controlled by a Harrisburg office.
In a third November 2014 recording, a point in time when T&M had already been awarded two Reading projects, jurors heard Spencer tell Neisser: “I’ve been trying to be as supportive as possible for you guys,” but that he needed “friends right now.”
Friends, Neisser testified, meant campaign contributors. T&M cut a $1,500 check to the Harrisburg PAC several days after the phone call took place.
A fourth November 2014 video recording — taken by Ruchlewicz via wire after being confronted by FBI agents — showed Spencer, Neisser, Ruchlewicz and another T&M associate discussing whether T&M was on the short list for a future project at lunch. Neisser shook his head as he watched and listened to the recording.
“I know there’s a check cut for $1,500,” his voice said.
“Beautiful, so we’re all squared up,” Ruchlewicz replied. As they discussed a new long-term improvement project for which T&M just applied for, Neisser offered to give the mayor Phillies tickets and parking passes. They were great seats, Spencer emphasized.
Prosecutors said their fifth recording, which captures the mayor leaving a voicemail for Neisser in 2015, shows that the mayor reached out directly to T&M for money. The sixth phone call took place in May 2015, after Spencer had lost the Democratic primary for re-election. Neisser said he was sending a $500 check for Reading to make up for the fact that no work from T&M showed up at the mandatory pre-bid for a long-term pumping station project.
“Did it make you uncomfortable?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan asked Neisser, referring to the fact that Ruchlewicz and Spencer talked about the contributions and the contracts T&M got from the city in the same conversation.
“Yes, it made me uncomfortable,” Neisser said.
“Why didn’t you get up and walk out?”
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Neisser said. “I should have.”