Expensive Allentown advice linked in some cases to campaign contributions

It is downright heartwarming the way Allentown's city fathers want to do everything in full public view.

"I think we were pretty darn open," Mayor Ed Pawlowski was quoted as saying Thursday, in a story on how he arranged more than $4 million in fees to specified consultants for advice on how to put the city's water system in hock for 50 years.

Information on the fees was provided only after Morning Call reporter Emily Opilo filed a Right-to-Know request to force the city to fork it over.

The multimillion-dollar advice came from various politically connected law firms and other establishments to help Pawlowski advance his scheme to lease city water and sewer systems to the Lehigh County Authority.

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In return for giving up control (and the revenue) of those two utilities until 2063, Pawlowski was able to obtain a quickie $211.3 million cash payment from the LCA to help pull the city out of a horrible financial crisis before his campaign for governor takes off in earnest. (From what I know about Harrisburg, Pawlowski is going to fit right in after he wins.)

On Friday, by the way, another story noted that some of the money contributed to Pawlowski's election campaign for mayor was being transferred to his gubernatorial campaign, although a campaign spokesman said details on the total amounts would not be released publicly for the time being.

As for being pretty darn open about the water lease fiscal finagling, it should be observed that Opilo requested information on the lease bids on April 4 and was stonewalled by the city for weeks.

City Council voted to approve the lease on April 25, and Pawlowski's office did not release the information on the bids until June 6, so the public was kept in the dark about the bids until well after it was too late to do anything about them.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Jeanette Eichenwald, a party pooper when it comes to many of Pawlowski's gallant pursuits, said council had no oversight over the consulting fees and blasted them as outrageous.

"The next mayor can spend $4 million on the idea that he's going to build a rocket to the moon, and we have no approval, no say," she was quoted as saying. "Something is wrong when we have no say."

I asked Mike Moore, the mayor's press spokesman, how many of those consultants in the $4 million advisory corps had made "political campaign contributions" to Pawlowski prior to the windfall, and how much.

"I don't have any connection to the campaign," Moore said, and he referred me to Mike Fleck of Pawlowski's mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

"I don't work for the city," Fleck said, "so I don't know all the consultants for the city."

Both Moore and Fleck referred me to Pawlowski's campaign finance reports, which I already had seen, but which do not indicate where an individual campaign contributor might be employed. Some links are obvious, such as a contribution from Marc Feller, whom Opilo recognized as a lawyer with the Dilworth Paxson law firm, one of Pawlowski's lease consultants.

Anyway, the lease consultants included three politically connected law firms — Dilworth, Ballard Spahr and King Spry. Each of those firms, or people connected to them, had given Pawlowski thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

I've written about Ballard Spahr before. That is the law firm where former Gov. Ed Rendell worked before going into politics. When he became governor, he made taxpayers give Ballard Spahr $8.4 million in consulting fees in the first half of 2007 alone. That included $1.8 million for advice on whether to sell the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which turned out to be useless. All that was in spite of the fact that Rendell had swarms of lawyers on the state payroll at his disposal to provide such advice.

When Rendell left office, Ballard Spahr made him a full partner. In lawyer talk, that is called quid pro quo.

I'm not saying there was a quid pro quo involved in the Allentown water lease advice, but there certainly were some fortuitous coincidences involving at least some of that whopping $4 million in advice being paid by the taxpayers.

Mayor Pawlowski never offered to throw taxpayer money at me for my advice on the water lease, but if he had, here is what I would have said:

Don't do it. Don't put the public in hock for 50 years just so you can grab quickie cash to make yourself look good during your term in Allentown, knowing you'll be long gone when the public is handed the tab in coming years.

Don't do it even if it means your campaign coffers will not be quite as full when you are running for governor.

Don't do it just to cover for the obscene financial mess left by your predecessor, Mayor Roy Afflerbach, who gave you a top position in his administration as a reward for your work on his election campaign. (So you and Afflerbach were a team before that administration left city taxpayers with a crippling burden to pay for idiotic decisions on pensions, hence the water lease.)

My fee for those three paragraphs of advice would be only half of that $4 million. What a bargain! In fact, if Pawlowski had thrown in a couple of junkets to Cabo San Lucas and some other goodies, I might have provided my advice for a lousy $1 million.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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