Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Bethlehem Tp Wants Running Bamboo to Run Away

Melissa Shafer and Tom Nolan review agenda
At their August 3 meeting, Bethlehem Township Commissioners voted 4-0 to advertise changes to their Weeds and Noxious Vegetation ordinance that would require bamboo aficianodos to keep this plant from invading or growing onto adjoining or neighboring properties, usually by installing underground sheathing around what is actually a form of grass. Ordinances in 17 communities throughout Pennsylvania already ban or restrict running bamboo. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources lists this grass, which actually survived the Hiroshima bomb, as one of the fastest growing and most invasive flora in the world.

These concerns were brought to the Board's attention at their last meeting by artist Sean Delonas, a former Page Six Cartoonist at The New York Post. But he was repeatedly interrupted by Commissioner Michael Hudak, who eventually stated "I'm done" and walked out of the meeting.

Hudak is apparently still done. He was absent from the April 3 meeting. But Commissioner Marty Zawarski was hjust getting started. He began the meeting by publicly apologizing to Delonas for the way that he was treated by Hudak. "[Delonas] was treated in a manner that I felt was inappropriate on so many levels ... . I want to extend my apologies for what happened and I will try to make sure that no resident is treated like this again."

Delonas thanked Commissioners, and informed them that he and his neighbor are working together to solve the bamboo problem. Tom Nolan hopes that the Ordinance will educate residents anout the danger of invasive bamboo.

In other business, Commissioners voted 4-0 to seek $50,000 in funding for a joint stormwater study with Freemansburg Borough. Half of this money is being sought from the Pa. Municipal Assistance Program. The other half is being requested from Northampton County's newly created Community Investment partnership program.

Manager Melissa Shafer and Zawarski also reported on a recent trip to Lancaster, which is considered a model of successful stormwater reduction. Lancaster upgraded what it calls its "gray infrastructure," which is what it calls its pipes and pumps. But Lancaster is also investing heavily in "green infrastructure" designed to reduce stormwater runoff. This includes the introduction of porous basketball courts and parking lots, as well as planting more trees.

Allentown: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Someone asked that question in a comment yesterday.

One person answered,

"Great question. Molovinsky could probably write a thesis for us. However some social and political scientists point to two key turning points. The first (social) was the introduction of low income public housing in the city and subsequent 'white flight.' The other (political) would be the disastrous financial mismanagement during the Afflerbach administration."

Despite the claim that some unidentified social and political scientists point to these two issues as key turning points in the City's history, this person is wrong.

Low income public housing has been part of Allentown's landscape since the 1930s. Hanover Acres and Riverview Terrace - now Overlook Park developed by Pennrose "We Love Ed" Properties- were some of the first public housing projects in the country and part of the Roosevelt "New Deal." In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt cut the ribbon for Hanover Acres.

Project type public housing fell out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s and was replaced with scattered site, Section 8 contracts, that could be used anywhere if the economics were favorable to a property owner. Allentown and many of its landlords availed themselves of this program instead of allowing the Allentown Housing Authority to do more projects - except elderly high rises.

The same thing happened in many cities, but Allentown had a perfect storm of middle class flight - not just white - and vacant houses that were converted, because of lax zoning enforcement and permissive city codes, to inexpensive multi-family housing which became Section 8 subsidized.

The middle class started leaving Allentown because of the Allentown School District's shortcomings as well as the sea change in demographics in the City's neighborhoods, especially those in Center City. Allentown had a poverty problem, and the ability to fill rental housing with low-income tenants, subsidized by Section 8 contracts, just exacerbated the poverty problem in the neighborhoods.

While the neighborhoods and school system continued to decline, Allentown, like many other cities, focused all of its attention and resources on Hamilton Street and the Central Business District, ignoring the neighborhoods around them. We have learned nothing from the past, since the NIZ is more of the same, only on steroids. You can't change a city solely by changing its Central Business District and commercial core.

As for the financial mismanagement under Mayor Roy Afflerbach, the seeds of financial ruin were planted long before Afflerbach became Mayor. The City Council and many before them have to share a lot of the blame by caving in to the Police and Fire unions, giving them anything they wanted because of fear and the mistaken idea that without a strong police force there could be no strong Central Business District and business community.

The final crushing blows were unsustainable pension plans for police, fire and even non-uniform city unions. Afflerbach and his City Council can be blamed for the last round of insane pension deals. Ed Pawlowski was there, too, but he has a short memory and hopes the public does, too. We are still not out of that hole and our water system was sold into bondage to help pay for the gluttonous city unions and their unconscionable pension plans - especially police.

Time will tell if the water lease is nothing more than another way to raise taxes without actually doing so. I could go on, but perhaps I should wait for that Molovinsky thesis.

Fed Ed Paid Atiyeh $1.4 Million For Property Appraised at $580,000

Abe Atiyeh a few years ago, in Bethlehem  zoning spat.
Around this time last year, colorful entrepreneur Abe Atiyeh purchased the assets of a company that has a billboard deal with Allentown at 13 different locations. It was a sudden turnaround. Previously, Abe had been on the warpath over this and several other matters, including the controversial Neighborhood Millionaire Improvement Zone. When news of peace broke, Mayor Edwin Pawlowski, aka Fed Ed, denied that there was any "deal that was made here, per se, and in any way, shape or form."  But that was untrue. Atiyeh had hired Fed Ed's political consultant Miked Fleck to be his business consultant. Very obviously, a deal was made.

On Friday, I told you that Fed Ed spent $1.4 million to buy two Atiyeh properties the City did not need. He walked away with a $999,000 capital gain that certainly would help him make the purchase. But guess what? Fed Ed actually paid Atiyeh $820,000 more than these properties were worth. The City's own appraisal valued the two properties at just $580,000.

In paying Atiyeh nearly three times what these properties were actually worth it appears that Fed Ed deprived Allentown citizens of their right to honest services.In some contexts, this can be viewed as a federal crime.

Raymond C Geiger, Jr., who is a well-respected certified general appraiser, was hired by Allentown and submitted a report on January 23, 2014, a few months prior to the City's purchase. (You can read it here). He valued the Basin Street property at $360,000 and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Highway property at $220,000. The City never bothered to get a second opinion.

Julio Guridy, Cynthia Mota and Edwin Pawlowski
Basin Street property - $360,000. - Geiger makes clear that the billboard easement on this property is not part of his valuation. Atiyeh first purchased the Basin St tract  in 1996 from RJ Gorman Railroad for $200,000. Over 18 years, he was unable to develop it. He sold it to Isaam Elias in 2005 for $350,000, but Elias was unable to do anything with it, either. He conveyed it back to Atiyeh in 2012 for $350,000, the same sum Abe had been paid for the property.

Atiyeh provided a plan for a flea market at the site, but Geiger notes that "there is no evidence of demand for such use or the financial feasibility of such use. If it were a viable use, the question is why take eighteen years to develop it? No development plans have ever been approved."

Geiger observes that the site is low-lying and "extremely flood prone." Most of the land is "100% undevelopable." Before doing anything on the property, it would need six feet or more of fill, compacting and a one-year settlement period.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Highway Property - $220,000. - Atiyeh purchased this old fertilizer company in 2007 for just $51,000, before the prior owner received an Act 2 release from environmental liability. That was subsequently obtained, and obviously makes the property more valuable than it was when Atiyeh bought it.

Geiger could see signage on the property soliciting "storage use." In addition, Atiyeh provided him with plans for a three-story office building. Geiger thinks that use is unlikely. "Such use would compete directly with the rising offices in the NIZ and as such would not have a favorable cost-value relationship. I note, no development plans have ever been submitted or approved.".

Like the Basin Street property, this one is also "extremely flood prone. Much of it is within the 100-year flood plain and 100% undevelopable. About two acres can be developed, but would require 10 feet of fill, compacting and a one-year waiting period. In Geiger's view, development here is at a "disadvantageous cost-benefit."

After receiving nearly three times what these properties are worth, Abe began throwing his money at anyone that Miked Fleck or Fed Ed directed him to support. He really has no choice. He has a three year contract for those billboards, and would like to see that contract renewed and perhaps expanded. So in some ways, Atiyeh is a victim here, too. If he does not pay, he does not play.

Fed Ed and Miked Fleck were the predators. The biggest victims, of course, are the people of Allentown. The Mayor and City Council both have a fiduciary duty to safeguard the public's funds. City Council, with the exception of Jeanette Eichenwald, rubber stamped this proposal. I have no idea if they were provided with or looked at Geiger's appraisal. In fact, Ray O'Connell actually complimented the Administration. Cynthia Mota, who may have worked for Atiyeh and testified on his behalf in a zoning dispute, voted in favor of the purchase.

The first duty of a public official should always be to the people. The Romans would say semper pro populus - always for the people. In Allentown, that has been perverted.

Others will decide whether this denial of the right to honest services is criminal. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Jimmy Carter - US an Oligarchy

Many of you consider Jimmy Carter one of our worst Presidents. He also might be one of our best ex-Presidents. He recently told Esquire (link below) that the unlimited infusion of money into political contests has turned this nation into an oligarchy.

As someone who has witnessed the growing influence of crony capitalism on a local level, I agree.

Bethlehem Township Will Consider Bamboo Restrictions Tonight

In response to Sean Delonas' complaints about the dangers of running bamboo, Bethlehem Township Commissioners will consider an ordinance at theur meeting tonight, imposing some restrictions on what the Pa. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recognizes as one of the fastest growing and most invasive plants in the world. The ordinance provides,
"Any property owner or resident who has planted or maintains Bamboo (“Bamboo Property Owner) shall be required to take such measures that are reasonably expected to prevent such Bamboo from invading or growing onto adjoining or neighboring properties. Such measures shall include, but not be limited to, installation of sheathing comprised of metal or other material impenetrable by Bamboo at sufficient depth within the property line or lines where the running Bamboo is planted or growing to prevent the growth or encroachment upon adjoining or neighboring property by the Bamboo.”

Atiyeh Real Estate Deals Approved by Allentown City Council

About two years ago, Allentown bought two properties it does not need from Abe Atiyeh, giving him at least a $1 million capital gain. This money certainly went a long way toward helping the colorful entrepreneur in acquiring the assets of an existing billboard company that already had 13 locations. That company, Clinton Street Media, was the beneficiary of a new zoning ordinance that enabled Mayor Edwin Pawlowski, aka Fed Ed, to change the uses of city-owned property at his own whim. And he did. In a zoning challenge filed by Atiyeh, Pawlowski was subpoenaed to testify concerning what exactly happened. But he never did. The matter was resolved when Atyeh ended up owning the company about which he was complaining.

Mickey Thompson, a lawyer and Atiyeh's COO, had called the Mayoral exemption a "get out of jail free" card for special developers who are on Fed Ed's good side. Speaking of the blindfold on Lady Justice, Thompson added, "That blindfold's been ripped off and the City is picking winners and losers." I guess now that Atiyeh has been selected as one of the winners, the blindfold can stay off. Abe Atiyeh has suddenly transformed from being one of Fed Ed's harshest critics - one who actually sued over the Neighborhood Millionaire Improvement Zone (MIZ) - into being a lapdog who has resumed making political contributions to Fed Ed and all his puppets.

Real Estate Deals Approved By Council

On Friday, I told you about the real estate deals (Union and Basin, Martin Luther King Highway) in which Honest Abe's capital gain was at least $999,000. At the time, I was unable to determine whether this was actually approved by Council. But thanks to Richard Fegley, who was there, I know the spending plan was approved at Council's April 16, 2014 meeting, although there was no indication at that time of what exactly was being purchased. Jeanette Eichenwald cast the sole No vote. The money did come from the City's lease of its water and sewer funds.

This matter had been discussed in more detail the previous week, at a meeting of the Council as a Committee-of-the-whole. At that time, as noted by Randy Kraft in an exhaustive report for WFMZ-TV69, the proposal was opposed by residents Bonnie Bosco and Fegley.

Managing Director Francis Dougherty stated that a nearly nine vacant tract at the southwest corner of Union and Basin Streets, complete with a pre-existing billboard, was being purchased as an area where several trails can eventually connect.

I see.

Abe spent $350,000 to buy this property in December 2012. In June 2014, he sold this vacant tract, encumbered by a billboard easement in his favor, to the City for $950,000. How the hell does that happen?

The other property, nearly seven acres along Martin Luther King Highway, is the old Lebanon Fertilizer Company. Atiyeh walked away with $399,000 after unloading that property

There is no indication that any appraisals were provided to City Council so they could determine whether the City was being paid a fair price.

Suffice it to say that with $999,000 in hand, Honest Abe was clearly in a position to purchase the assets of Clinton Street Allentown Media LLC, the company that did have contracts with the City for billboards at 13 different locations.

Why Was Fed Ed So Afraid To Testify?

Why was Fed Ed so willing to give Honest Abe such a sweetheart deal? I doubt seriously that he was concerned very much about the legality of a new zoning ordinance that gave him incredible powers. But for some reason, he did not want to testify. He postponed his first appearance, and then the matter was just postponed generally.

Fed Ed may have been leery to discuss how he chose to deal with Clinton Street Allentown Media. I've been informed that Fed Ed's campaign manager, Miked Fleck, was working as a "consultant" for that company.

Fleck later would become Atiyeh's business consultant.

Clinton Street, a very successful cell tower company, was made up of Attorney Nicholas Pullen and Engineer Larry Romanowski. Pullen needed no consultant. He was an early Pawlowski campaign contributor and also was appointed by former Governor Ed Rendell as his Chief Counsel to the Pa. Comm'n on Crime and Delinquency. He managed Jim Eisenhower's bid to be Attorney General. He's currently a principal at Edgewater Partners, which describes itself as "[n]avigating the confluence of business and politics." Pullen already appears to be a first class crony capitalist with no need for someone like Fleck. But he used him.

Former Fed Representing Allentown Has Conflict

Robert Goldman, a former federal prosecutor, has been retained by Allentown to assist officials in producing documents that have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. While this is a good idea, the City should have hired someone else. You see, Goldman represents a man who has sued the City with claims of racism and police brutality.

This civil rights lawsuit, filed April 1, is focused on allegations that Allentown police beat Lopez into unconsciousness and broke his neck when they accosted him outside a 7-11, where he had just purchased some groceries. He admitted to officers that he was in possession of two syringes. In the complaint filed by Goldman, he describes a police department with a "history of violence and Constitutional violations"
that is "condoned and encouraged" by City officials.

Now he's representing them.

This is a conflict of interest. How can Goldman's client expect him to act with undivided loyalty if the City is also paying him for his services, even though the matters are unrelated? How can taxpayers know whether Goldman's case gets more consideration from the City than it deserves?

Under Pennsylvania law, a lawyer may represent a person he is suing in another matter so long as both clients give informed consent. But there's no shortage of experienced attorneys who could assist the City without any appearance of impropriety.

This was a mistake.

If City Council had some oversight over contracts, and had a few independent-minded members, this problem would never have occurred.

Friday, July 31, 2015

NorCo HR Director Tracie Barnes Resigns

After less than six months on the job, Northampton County Human Resources Director Tracie Barnes has resigned. Her LinkedIn profile fails to indicate where she is employed now. She may have attended one Council meeting since she was hired, and played no role in the salary dispute between the administration and Magisterial district judge employees.

Fed Ed and Miked Fleck Funneled $1 Million to Honest Abe Atiyeh

Sewage diving wil be part of next year's Sportsfest
When Edwin Pawlowski first ran for Allentown Mayor, colorful entrepreneur Abe Atiyeh loved him. But things quickly changed. J.B. Reilly's urban growth regime killed Atiyeh's dreams of a hockey arena in Allentown, somewhere along Airport Road. The crony capitalists who really run Allentown wanted it downtown as an anchor for their newly created MIZ (Millionaire Improvement Zone). Then city officials even began throwing up roadblocks to Digiview, Abe's billboard empire. But that's old news. Honest Abe is in love again. And he has a million reasons.

Honest Abe sings Fed Ed's praises now, calling him "the best mayor in the history of the city. I've never expected or gotten anything in return for a donation. I've never gotten any city contracts." Of course he did. As I explained earlier this week, Honest Abe bought the billboard company with city contracts for billboards at 13 different locations. Fed Ed denied that the City was involved in any way. "There was no deal that was made here, per se, and in any way, shape or form," he insisted. But there was. The City actually helped him purchase the company by buying two properties it did not need from Abe, allowing him to realize a $999,000 capital gain.

The first property, a series of three parcels along Union and Basin Streets near the city sewage plant, was purchased by Atiyeh's Basin Street Development Company in December, 2012, for $350,000. In May, 2014, he sold it to the City of Allentown for $950,000. He also imposed a billboard easement, which would allow him to advertise at that site.

His capital gain here is at least $600,000, and is probably more because he encumbered the City's property with a billboard easement in his favor.

The second property, located around 1900 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, is the remnant of an old fertilizer company, not very far from where a WPA wall recently collapsed as a result of City neglect. Much of this land, around 60%, is actually located in Salisbury Township instead of Allentown.

Atiyeh's Cedar Holdings LLC purchased this property in February 2007, for $51,000. In May 2014, he sold it to the City for $450,000, for a $399,000 capital gain.

His total capital gain from both purchases in $999,000. The City paid him enough money to purchase the billboard company he wanted.

The person who made all of this possible, by Atiyeh's own admission, is Miked Fleck, the Fed Ed campaign consultant who also acted as a business consultant.

It's unclear to me whether Allentown City Council was ever asked to approve these purchases. I see no evidence of it in any of the City Council minutes during that time period. It might be there, but I'm unable to locate it.

Allentown blogger Michael Molovinsky, unaware that the City was buying these properties from Atiyeh, speculated at the time that the funding source was actually the water and sewer lease with Lehigh County Authority. Fed Ed has apparently been using it as a slush fund. Since Miked Fleck's sister-in-law works as a "compliance" officer there, I'm sure every t is crossed and i is dotted.

Since that time, Atiyeh has been very grateful. He's donated $12,500 to Pawlowski or his puppets. How much he has paid his "consultant" Fleck is a question best left to the Feds.

The ostensible reason for these purchases was so that the City could add to its parks. Cuz as you know, we all love to picnic next to a sewage plant or an abandoned fertilizer company. In fact, sewage diving is being added to next year's Sportsfest. Instead of an A-town Throwdown, it will be the A-town Throwup.

The real reason for this purchase was to funnel $1 million into Honest Abe's pockets.

Blogger's Note: I have linked to a story written by Michael Molovinsky at the time these purchases were made. Although he was unaware that Abe Atiyeh was the  seller, or that he was walking away with a cool million, he knew something was wrong with this deal. This story just completes the puzzle.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mezzacappa Loses Defamation Appeal

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has today affirmed a $67,140 defamation judgment awarded in my favor and against Tricia Mezzacappa.  Her appeal was considered by a three-judge panel including President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman, President Judge Emeritus John T. Bender and Judge Paula Francisco Ott. Judge Bender penned the Opinion, which can be read here.

In affirming the punitive damages aspect of the award, the Court noted that Mezzacappa's "libelous statements included outrageous and unsubstantiated allegations of criminal behavior." The Court added that the purpose of this award is to "punish a tortfeasor for outrageous conduct and to deter such conduct in the future."

Mezzacappa's arguments that she was never properly notified of the trial were also rejected. So was her contention that court personnel actually misled her into thinking the case was over.

Now that the Superior Court has ruled in my favor, the judgment will be pursued vigorously. An action has already been filed over Tricia Mezzacappa's fraudulent conveyance of her West Easton home to her mother.

In addition to losing her appeal, Mezzacappa is scheduled for criminal trial next week for hiding her car after it was levied upon by the Sheriff. I am informed that she has applied for ARD, a special program for first offenders in which charges are dismissed after a period of probation. To be eligible for this program, the applicant must admit responsibility.

Thanks to the tireless work of the Sheriffs, I already have the car. Thus, I have no opposition to her application for ARD.

I will entertain no comments to this post.

Campos Victim of Hit and Run In Courthouse Parking Lot?

Earlier this month, I told you about a hearing before the Personnel Appeals Board involving a lieutenant who was basically fired for insisting that other corrections officer follow the uniform policy. When the evidence came out, that's pretty much what happened. So this is going to be another big loser for Northampton County unless someone comes to his or her senses and reinstates this guy immediately. But something came out during the hearing that I neglected to mention before. I'll tell you about it now. It involves Operations Manager Alfie Crivellaro and Director of Administration Luis Campos.

Some months ago, some asshole smashed into Luis Campos' car, which was parked on the County lot. I imagine there would be about 2,200 suspects, and considering some of the nice things I've said about Campos, I'd have to be in the top ten.

Believe it or not, I am innocent. The person who smashed into Campos' car, and who then drive off, is none other than the very person who wanted to fire a lieutenant for enforcing the uniform policy. Operations Manager Alfie Crivellaro.

When confronted, he claimed he never knew he hit the car.

In 2010, Crivellaro and his wife were both charged with hosting an underage drinking party. After being declared ineligible for ARD, he pleaded no contest and was fined $1,000.

Now he fires people for doing their jobs.

Is Fed Ed a Racketeer?

We all know that a federal Grand Jury, the United States Attorney's Office and the FBI have subpoenaed documents and served search warrants on Allentown City Hall, Reading City Hall, political consultant Mike Fleck's office and Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer's home. We know agents were poised outside Mayor Ed Pawlowsi's home. We know he and his wife, who is his campaign treasurer, were questioned. We know that political consultant Mike Fleck, who worked for the mayors in both Allentown and Reading, left town in a hurry. We know Feds are seeking information concerning the very cozy relationship that exists between developers and city government. This is compounded in Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone, where $54 million in state tax dollars have been used with no oversight to build an empire for J.B. Reilly. It's inevitable that mischief is afoot. There was simply too much money and too little accountability. But what kind of charges can we expect to see down the road? There was a good indication yesterday that this may be a racketeering investigation. Those are the charges that were filed against U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah Sr, along with four of his assoiciates. It followed a very lengthy investigation that spanned several years, not months. That may be the case here, too.

Fattah has been charged with bribery, fraud and money laundering in connection with several schemes involving contributions to his campaign warchest. But he's also been charged with racketeering, which is the nuclear option for federal prosecutors.

What is racketeering? When you hear that word, you might start think of finding horse's heads in beds and offers that can't be refused. The law was definitely written to take on the Mafia. But it applies to any criminal enterprise, even a legitimate group like ... say a City Council or the bluebloods that infest the NIZ Board. As explained by the law's author, G. Robert Blakey, "We don't want one set of rules for people whose collars are blue or whose names end in vowels, and another set for those whose collars are white and have Ivy League diplomas." Boiling it down to its simplest terms, a prosecution requires proof of  pattern if racketeering activity in the form of two predicate acts.

Its official name is the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970.

Prosecutors can go back ten years to find predicate acts, which can come from a list of 35 state and federal crimes. Those who are convicted face 20 years in prison, along with a $25,000 fine and the forfeiture of all assets. There's also a civil component. Those who have been damaged by racketeering can sue and seek treble damages.

In this case, the enterprise could include Fed Ed, Miked Fleck, other politicians along with a cornucopia of crony capitalists who were seeking to enrich themselves. Is the connection between campaign contributions and contracts a coincidence? Or is there a scheme to deprive the public of its right to honest services with bribery, extortion, mail and wire fraud, obstruction?

It's important to note that no one has been charged with anything,

Even without whatever was learned by wire, I know there is evidence of vendors seeking to do business in the City who were told that they should discuss it with Pawlowski at his next fundraiser. There is also evidence that Pawlowski distributed lists to potential vendors, identifying PACs and nonprofits where they should make contributions. I know of one vendor who actually walked out of a meeting after being handed such a list.

Is this criminal? By itself, no.

With Miked Fleck in the picture, things get a lot more interesting. Why did Pawlowski solicit candidates to use Fleck's services? How is it that Abe Atiyeh, who couldn't get his foot in the door in Allentown, suddenly owned all of its billboards after hiring Fleck as a "consultant"? Why is it that the Rosen family, rumored to the financial backer for Fleck's brewer client Ruckus, made all those contributions to Pawlowski's Senate race?

These questions could be asked of numerous other contributors who seemed to be on the inside track to city or NIZ business.  With a wire, the answers could prove interesting.

In a news release accompanying yesterday's indictment of Chaka Fattah, federal authorities make very clear why these prosecutions are necessary.

Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell: "Public corruption takes a particularly heavy toll on our democracy because it undermines people’s basic belief that our elected leaders are committed to serving the public interest, not to lining their own pockets.”

FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Edward J. Hanko: “A founding principle of our democracy is that citizens place their faith and trust in the public servants they elect to represent them. It is the duty of the FBI, IRS, and Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute those who violate this trust and put personal gain above public service.”

IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent-in-Charge Akeia Conner: “Public corruption by our elected officials and their associates undermines the American public’s confidence in our government.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Murray Believes in Due Process, Scomillio Violates It

Abe Kassis has come out for Sam Murray
No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. That's pretty basic stuff. It is enshrined in our federal and state Constitution. It's pretty much why a judge exists. He is there precisely to ensure that everyone is heard, rich and poor. Sam Murray, the Democratic nominee for judge, understands this. On the very night he announced, he stated that the most important right in a courtroom is the right to due process. Abe Kassis, who ran for judge in the primary and came up a few votes short, also understands this basic right. As an Assistant District Attorney, he has been a tough but fair prosecutor. But Vic Scomillio's inability to follow this simple constitutional requirement convinces me he needs a little more seasoning before he becomes a judge.

I told you yesterday that a federal district court judge has just sanctioned Northampton County with $186,000 in legal fees that were incurred by Northampton County employee Jill Mancini, who was improperly fired by Vic Scomillio when he became the County's Solicitor. A jury had previously awarded her $94,000. Scomillio fired her just two days before Christmas, in a call he made from his car.

In addition to violating her due process rights, Scomillio showed little compassion for her financial situation. Although there's no constitutional right to compassionate treatment, do you really want a cold, heartless judge?

Below is part of a Jill Mancini deposition taken before the trial in this matter. Id this the kind of person you want sitting on judgment of you or someone you love?

Q. On December 23rd when Victor Scomillio called you about the elimination of the full-time positions, you were -- at that point you were already aware that that was being proposed, isn't that correct?

A. I was aware, yes.

Q. It was not a shock to you when he told you that his proposal was to eliminate the full-time positions in the solicitor's office?

A. I would say it wasn't a surprise but that was a shock.

Q. What do you recall as to your conversation with Mr. Scomillio?

A. I recall our conversation opened with congratulations to Mr. Scomillio for his appointment, his presentment appointment. He told me that the positions -- that as of January 7 he was eliminating -- the -- the part-timers were gone and he was eliminating the positions, and then the full-timers would be gone and I would be unemployed as of January 7. So there were -- Victor was on his cell phone in his car. It was very difficult to hear, very difficult to have this kind of conversation. But essentially what happened was at that point when he said to me, I am going to eliminate the positions as of January 7th, you won't be employed, it was clear to me there was a problem with understanding the law. So I decided to ask him, to appeal to humanity. It was two days before Christmas. And there's no time to look for a job. And there was no expectation that I would have to until a few days before he called me. So I asked him if we could delay the end date. And he told me that was not his call. And so I asked him if he would like me to call John Brown or contact him and make that request. And I don't exactly recall what he did say.

Then the next question was, well, how will you eliminate my position because I am a career service -- eliminate -- fire me, there's no just cause, and I am a career service person. And he said, no, you are a career exempt person. I said, no, that is a pay scale. It has nothing to do with protected status. He told me to look at the resolution that created my job and I told him I have. It says nothing about my status, which means I am a career service status. Because unless a resolution says exempt, the position is a career service. Pay grade career exempt has nothing to do with protected status.

Q. Is that what you told him in your conversation or --

A. I did. That's what we discussed. Then there was some discussion about that. And then I said, well, in any case, how can you release me because the position exists? And he said, I am going to eliminate it. I said, well, you can't because that's council's job. So he said he would make a request to council. And I said, well, you will only be -- you are not -- that was another thing too was, how can you make this decision because you are not employed by the county at this time? You are presumptively employed but not yet. So I asked him, you would make that request two days after you have been appointed and approved by council? And there wasn't much discussion about that. Then I said, look, it's just too difficult to have this conversation over the telephone. Why -- when will you be in the office next? And Victor told me, I won't be in the office. And I said, okay, how about if I write you a memo and also make the request for a delayed end date, termination date? And he said, okay. I said, do you have an e-mail? He said, fax me the memo. I said, do you have the fax number? He said, call my secretary. I said, okay, goodbye. And that was it. But I will add this, there was never -- it is a misstatement to say that the reason that I was not offered a part-time position had anything to do with my attitude, because there was never any indication that I was going to be offered a part-time position, either by John Brown at the time he spoke to Karl -- his statement to Karl was that I was not going to be there. And the first thing out of Victor's mouth was, we are eliminating the positions and you will be terminated, effective January 7th.

Q. Did you ever prepare a memo for Mr. Scomillio?

A. No.

Q. Why not?

A. It was clear to me that the decision to eliminate and terminate the full-time assistant solicitors had very little to do with what it was alleged to have to do with; i.e., it was in my mind inconsistent with the law, number one; and number two, was inconsistent with any practical advantage that could be served to the office. So obviously there was another agenda. Why would I invest my time and energy into a useless exercise?

Q. Have you had any discussions with Mr. Scomillio as far as the reasons why he was eliminating the full-time positions?

A. I e-mailed him on two separate occasions and asked for an explanation as to the law and as to any other considerations concerning his decision to eliminate the positions. He never responded to either one.

Q. And do you recall when you sent him the e-mails?

A. Prior to the time that I left. Prior to the 24th of January. As a matter of fact, I think my final request to him was just after he sent the e-mail from the council meeting notifying Mike Alpago, the other full-time assistant, and me that council had approved the elimination of the positions. I sent an e-mail asking him, just as a matter of respect and consideration for somebody who has worked here and worked this hard, would you please be so kind as to give me a legal basis for your -- the authority to do what you are doing and also to give me a description of why you want to do it?

If this is the kind of person you want deciding cases for your loved ones, then by all means vote for Scomillio.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fed'l Judge Orders NorCo to Pay Fired Solicitor's $186,000 Legal Fee

In January of this year, former Assistant NorCo Solicitor Jill Mancini was awarded $94,000 for due process violations that occurred when she was fired by incoming Solicitor Vic Scomillio. Civil rights lawyer Pat Reilly had argued that she was a career service employee and was therefore entitled to due process.

Now, in addition to the $94,000 jury verdict, Northampton County is on the hook for Reilly's $186,018.60 attorney fee. District Court Judge Juan R. Sánchez has ordered the County to pay Reilly for his time spent advocating on behalf of Mancini before the Personnel Appeals Board, too.

In this case, Northampton County had argued that Mancini's termination was the result of a reorganization, and thus there was no reason to afford her due process. The jury disagreed. So did Judge Sánchez, in an order denying the County's motion for a new trial.
"Scomillio, then incoming-County Solicitor, made the decision to reorganize the Solicitor’s Office within several weeks of John Brown’s election as County Executive. ... Scomillio made his decision based on “know[ing] who was on the staff there,” even though he was not yet familiar with the scope and extent of work in the Solicitor’s Office. ... [H]e indicated he “had no interest in keeping [Mancini] on the staff[] based upon her reaction to [his] suggestion of reorganization.” ... [D]espite Executiver John Brown’s announced intention to reduce costs across the County after his November 2013 election, he continued to spend money by entering into new contracts with outside vendors. For instance, Brown hired Sahl Communications in July 2014, despite not knowing if anyone at the County was responsible for doing the work for which Sahl was hired. ... He also hired Deana Zosky, a financial consultant, despite campaigning on the strength of his business background. ... Brown further created a new job, 'Deputy Director of Public Works,' for Steve DeSalva. ... DeSalva was previously the Director of Public Works in the prior County administration. Id. And while Brown believed the elimination of the full-time Assistant Solicitor positions saved the County money, he could not specify how much. See id. at 60. Finally, Mancini produced evidence indicating the eliminated positions were substantially recreated as part-time positions with largely similar responsibilities."

RIP Jolly Joe Timmer

I am reliably informed that Jolly Joe Timmer, who also owned WGPA-AM radio in Bethlehem, has passed on after a lengthy illness. I have no additional details.

Colton Resigns as President of "Divisive," "Unprofessional" Bangor School Board

Pam Colton has stepped down as President of the Bangor Area School Board. Her resignation was announced at last night's meeting, which she declined to attend. She also resigned from the Board. Though Directors were mum, she delivered a scathing letter that was highly critical of them.

And she once served with Ron Angle! She's been a Director for 16 years, and served for the last three as President.

Steve Bussenger, who is VP of the Board, though his election as President was automatic. And he was. ... For about four minutes. The Board instead installed Mike Goffredo.

Colton had been rumored to be a Controller's candidate against  incumbent Steve Barron, but she never circulated a petition.

Her resignation is below:

I have thought long and hard about this and although part of me believes I should stay on as board president until the December 7, 2015 reorganization meeting, I have decided to resign from the board effective immediately. My decision is based on the fact that after 16 years of working very hard for this district, I no longer want to be connected to the unprofessional approach that some board members have adopted when dealing with our staff, nor am I able to support the lack of accountability I am witnessing every day.

Throughout my 16 years I have never served in such a divisive environment, and I have served with some very opinionated school board directors. Now board members task administrators with their own agenda items rather than making sure it is the will of the majority. Board members dig for information on staff members rather than letting supervisors handle situations. Board members railroad meetings with their own personal agenda. Nothing I have done to advise otherwise has changed the behavior. The staff is now operating from a position of weakness, not strength.

I have given 100 percent of my help and support to this administrative team when asked. I have always been available to answer questions, attend meetings, or just talk through a situation. I hope whoever is chosen to replace me by the remaining eight board members treats you as well. I wish you the best going forward.

Pam Colton

Who will Directors appoint to succeed her? My guess would be Ron Angle. His heart has always been in the Bangor School Board, and I think the votes are there. But he would only be serving until the end of the year. That's when Pam's term on the Board expires. She never sought re-election.

Pa's Clean and Green - a 90% Tax Break For the Wealthy

Pennsylvania's Clean and Green Program is a preferential assessment given to property owners with larger tracts of land. In many instances, it gives farmers a break. But in many more, it is a handout to the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

Statewide, 9.3 million acres are enrolled. In Northampton County, 3,490 properties are in the Act 319 program, with a smaller and still undetermined number in the similar Act 515 program. The tax on these properties is about 10% what it would be without this program.

This tax break is provided for properties that are in agricultural use, agricultural reserve or forest reserve. Northampton County considers all land not used in active farming as agricultural reserve so long as it is "open to the public for that use, without charge or fee, on a nondiscriminatory basis." If a property owner decides to develop, he must pay back the 90% difference, with interest.

While this is a laudable program, it appears to have been perverted. There are huge tracts with private golf courses and swimming pools, and some of these properties are posted against trespassing. I see no reason why Northampton County taxpayers should subsidize this sort of classism.

How many of these properties are actually farmed? How many are made available to the public as open space? How many are private preserves for wealthy landowners, with no public access?

Stay tuned.

Fed Ed's Atiyeh Connection

When you think of developer Abe Atiyeh, you might be thinking rehabs, nursing homes or even private prisons. But in recent years, he's really begun to focus on billboards. He was trying to get his foot in the door in Allentown, but Doylestown-based Premier Media beat him to it with plans for a series of electronic billboards. Abe Atiyeh now operates those billboards himself. How did this happen when the City and Mayor both have vendettas against him, as Atiyeh has claimed?

Two words.

Miked Fleck.

Atiyeh hired Fleck.

"Mike had access to the mayor and the approval process, why not use a consultant for that?" argued Atiyeh.

Because it sure smells bad. Though Fleck and Pawlowski both insisted there would be a separation between Fleck's business and political consulting, it's very clear that Atiyeh was brought on board to sprinkle different campaigns and PACs with money.

Atiyeh insists there was no quid pro quo. Fleck was wearing a wire for 90 days, and I'm sure he has no reason to be worried at all.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lou Hershman: Those $2 Parking Meters Are Actually $3

As part of his gentrification of the MIZ (Millionaire Improvement Zone), Fed Ed's latest trick is to double the parking meter rates in the downtown, from $1 to $2 per hour, from 8 am to 10 pm, six days a week. The sole vote against doubling the rate came from Jeanette Eichenwald. For people of limited means, this is extremely unfair. It's also a slap across the face of restaurants like Allentown Brew Works, which have no huge parking lots like the nearby malls. But guess what? It might actually be as much as a $3 parking meter, according to City Council candidate Lou Hershman.

Schlossberg getting a few touch ups
Hershman tells me that if you feed the meters nickels, you get a minute for every one you insert. You'd have to plug the meter with 60 nickels for an hour's worth of parking. That comes out to $3 per hour, not the $2 pr hour authorized.

If you use quarters and want to stay an hour, four quarters will give you only 56 minutes.

Allentown is cheating anyone who uses cash at a meter.

But don't fret. Jeanette Eichenwald is going to conduct a hearing to force a rollback. Besides, poor people shouldn't drive.

Thoise with limited incomes may no longer be able to park downtown, but State Rep. Mike Schlossberg wants them to know that they can get free training to work in a MIZ restaurant like Billy's Downtown Diner for under the minimum wage, which is usually the case for waitstaff.

He's posted a link on his Facebook page for anyone looking for a "leg up" on those coveted hospitality jobs. I must say it's very thoughtful of him to take time out of his ribbon cuttings with Butz to share a moment with the unwashed masses.

Incidentally, this free training only costs $35.

A Pennrose By Any Other Name

Before he was being paid by Miked Fleck to shill for Fed Ed, Daryl Nerl was already doing basically the same thing for The Morning Call. In a breathless 2005 account about Pawlowski's obscene campaign finances, Nerl makes it seem like a good thing. Get the very first sentence of his story. "Boosted by an unlikely amalgam of developers he helped bring to Allentown, labor unions and historically heavy-hitting GOP contributors, Democrat Ed Pawlowski has raised 50 percent more money for his mayoral campaign than Republican William L. Heydt." Those developers were already here. For all we know, they brought Pawlowski in from Chicago. He was not here to save Allentown's minority population, but to exterminate them. But in that account, the seeds were already in place. Marcel Groen. Butz. And Penrose. This is about the Pennrose connection. Over the years, Pennrose and its Race Street PAC have been Pawlowski's biggest contributors.

Contributions started in 2005 and have continued from both the Race Street PAC and Pennrose principals Mark Dambly and Richard Barnhart. Pennrose received KOZ benefits for the former Trojan Powder Company and Allentown National Bank Building renovations on Center Square - across from the Arena - in 2004 converting the buildings to subsidized elderly housing. Pennrose also was named developer for the Hope VI HUD funding Hanvover Acres and Riverview Terrace conversion to mixed use housing by the Allentown Housing Authority. That's a $75 million project. The Mayor controls appointments to the Allentown Housing Authority and was a member of the Board himself while DCED director. Alan Jennings, Julio Guridy and Sara Hailstone are members now. Pennrose was also named to redevelop Cumberland Gardens, but that deal was rejected by Lehigh County Commissioners because of the ridiculous $225,000 per unit expense.

Between the two projects, Pennrose was involved with over $90 million in projects for Allentown. They also were named developers by Easton for their Hope VI project. Pennrose is also co-developing Strata Flats with City Center in the NIZ.

Fed Ed's Norris, McLaughlin Connection

Matt Sorrentino
The Norris, McLauglin law firm has a starring role in the summer drama that increasingly appears to be a federal investigation into pay-to-play. Not only are partners identified on the FBI subpoena list, but they have been involved in the Pawlowski story for the past several years.This firm was once known as Tallman, Hudders and Sorrentino, a prominent local firm. The firm recently re-located from South Whitehall to take advantage of the low rents made possible at the disingenuously named Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ).

Managing partner Matt Sorrentno is Lehigh County's Solicitor. He also represents Lehigh Valley Health Network, which just happens to be renting space inside the NIZ and even had two security kiosks installed for the short walk from a parking lot to their fitness center. And for good reason! Patrons might run into Rich Fegeley!

Richard Somach
Richard Somach represents Pawlowski contributor Rob Bennett and Bennett Auto Dealerships. Bennett built a new dealership at the former Exide Battery Plant on Lehigh Street, thanks in large part to $4.5 million in federal brownfield remediation grants.. Though the original construction was done by J. G. Petrucci, the last several additions to the site were done by North Star (J.B. Reilly) and Jim Gentile. Bennett sold their East Allentown - West Bethlehem location to the Banko family. Banko never used it, instead moving to a facility in South Whitehall. Somach is anAssistant County Solicitor, Lehigh County Assessment Board Solicitor and is a collections attorney for Nat Penn Bank, among others,

Fed Ed and his family are rumored to use Rich Somach's Florida Keys second home for vacations.

Scott Allinson
In addition to all of the reported connections of Scott Allinson to Mike Fleck, Allinson also represented Ruckus Brewing in their Neuweiler deal. That was a lot of smoke and mirrors, and may involve Rosen money as speculated by Michael Molovinsky. Contractor Sean Boyle has supposedly been hired by Ruckus to be their Construction Manager. Allinson is a Fleck lawyer, Ruckus lawyer, Reilly friend and lawyer, Fainor friend and lawyer, Lehigh County IDA lawyer and NorCo Gaming Authority Solicitor. A self-proclaimed rainmaker, his profile claims that he helps businesses "achieve their day-to-day, as well as long-term, business objectives."

He calls himself an economic development lawyer.

Ollie Foucek
I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention Oldrich "Ollie" Foucek III, City Planning Commission member and chair, ANIZDA Board member, LV Chamber of Commerce Solicitor and major Fed Ed contributor. He recently was among those to approve plans for a wholesaler along the Allentown NIZ waterfront despite the fact that there were no ... plans. Obviously, this guy is a walking, talking conflict of interest. Being on the Planning Commission and NIZ Board is bad enough, but to be part of a firm that is financially benefiting from both is obscene.

Foucek would likely say Fouck you a year ago. Don't think he'll be saying that now.

Of lesser note are John Lushis, who is involved in the IDA at both Lehigh and Northampton County; and Ted Zeller, who I'll bet has done all the PLCB work for City Center, Arena and NIZ restaurants.

Bumstead Sees Fed Ed's McCord Connection, Too

Brad Bumsted, a journalist at The Pittsburgh Tribune, sees the same connection between Fed Ed and Rob McCord that I wrote about last week.
It's hard to read the tea leaves in a secretive federal investigation. But my best guess is that a state contractor, alarmed at McCord's shakedown, called the feds. They got a court order for a wiretap. They caught McCord in the act — like telling a neighbor in Montgomery County to tell his boss at a Philadelphia law firm doing business with Treasury: “If (McCord) loses and you stiffed him, every time you are trying to get something done through state government, you are going to have the state Treasurer looking to screw you,” according to federal documents.

The feds dropped the hammer on McCord. He went all out to cooperate. He wore a wire. Exactly when that began is unclear. McCord resigned and pleaded guilty in quick succession.

McCord gave them Fleck and maybe more. Now the FBI owns Fleck. He agreed to wear a wire and record some of his clients. They issued subpoenas for a slew of documents in Allentown and Reading with many similarities.

It's the timing that suggests this pattern. McCord's resignation and plea in February — then his sentencing conference set for June was postponed. The subpoenas were then served this month in Allentown and Reading.
Bumstead is also the journalist who reported that Alan Kessler, whose name appears on the FBI subpoena list, was Hillary Clinton's national finance chair in her 2008 Presidential bid.

Lehigh Little League Sends Two Teams to State 'Ship

It is very rare for any Little League team to go very far in the annual World Series tournament. Most are eliminated in the early stages. But this year, Lehigh Little League is making a very serious run for the right to make the pilgrimage to Williamsport. Their Major Division, consisting of young men between 10-12 years old, won their District and Section championships. This gave them the right to participate in the State Championship, which started in Newville last night night.

Lehigh is squaring off against seven other section winners from around the state in a double elimination tournament. On Sunday, as a red hot orb beat down on them, they faced appropriately named Red Land. And Lehigh left the field red-faced, after losing 11-1. But that's no surprise. Red Land had outscored its tournament opponents by 141-6 in nine games before facing Lehigh.

The sun will come out today. And so will Lehigh. They play again tonight.

I am trying to get details about the team. I know that Cole Hershman, a very gifted athlete from Notre Dame in Bethlehem, is on the Lehigh squad as a center-fielder. His older brother Grant is a Becahi pitcher.

The winner of this tournament goes on to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Little League Baseball Tournament in Bristol, Connecticut. From there, it's on to the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

As unusual as all this is, I have to add that Lehigh's Farm Division, which is made up of 9 and 10 year-old boys, have also won their districts and section.

Butz: We Finished Arena On Time, On Budget

Earlier this month, I told you that three mechanics' liens have been filed in connection with the $160 million PPL arena project. Alvin H Butz got dragged into it, I was surprised to learn this company, large as it is, was not required to post a performance bond, something that any municipal attorney should require. That omission, along with the lack of bidding or any transparency throughout the entire Neighborhood Improvement Zone, are major concerns. But Butz did not get to be where it is today by doing slipshod work. I was contacted by someone from that firm, who asked to present their said of the case. I am only too happy to do so.

Here are the facts:

We served as Construction Manager, not General Contractor. Our contract was with ANIZDA, but we worked under the direction of Hammes Corp., a Madison, Wisconsin firm that served as Development Manager.

Because a Construction Manager is hired before the drawings are complete, there is no way to “bid” the project, but we were selected, by Hammes, after the most rigorous process we’ve ever encountered. We competed with five of the largest CM’s in the world, and the process took months. We were eventually selected on the basis of the quality of the individuals on our proposed management team, our demonstration of understanding of the project, the methods we proposed to employ, and the competiveness of our fee. We were the only local firm capable of undertaking a project of that magnitude.

A performance bond was considered, but Hammes recommended waiving it because of our financial strength, our reliability and the cost savings its waiver would generate. A bond would have cost the project about $1.5 million.

The absence of a performance bond has no bearing on the payment of our subcontracts or on any exposure to the taxpayer. Our contract requires that we hold ANIZDA harmless from claims of subcontractors.

Every subcontract was competitively bid and open to all qualified firms.

The liens have been filed by subcontractors of subcontractors. They involve disputes between themselves, and we’ve withheld money to make sure that any offended party gets the money it’s due.

We have no opportunity to pocket money that should have gone to subcontractors. All the checks we’ve received are made jointly to us and each individual subcontractor and supplier. Furthermore, we would never hold back money that’s due. Our reputation has been built partly on our exceptional treatment of our vendors.

The project schedule proved to be exceptionally difficult. The underground piles turned out to be much more extensive and time-consuming than anticipated. We suffered with hundreds of scope changes, many of them requiring extra time. Just as we were about to put the roof on, we were hit with one of the worst winters in history. It snowed almost every other day. Meeting the completion date became increasingly challenging, and many thought meeting it was impossible. We decided to work overtime to meet the schedule, and the cost of doing so resulted in enormous costs that we could never have anticipated.

Despite the incredible challenges, we finished the project on time; and in this day of huge cost overruns on sports arenas, the final cost to ANIZDA was within 3% of the original estimate.