Retired FBI agent Scott Curtis spoke Tuesday about his work on the investigation into former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
Retired FBI Special Agent Scott Curtis, who helped convict former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, said being a federal investigator isn’t quite like it seems in TV and movies.
“Just because I flash my badge and say I’m with the FBI, people aren’t just going to want to cooperate; in fact that’s probably the worst thing to do,” he said Tuesday while speaking to criminal justice students and community members at Penn State-Lehigh Valley as part of a university speaker series.
Curtis discussed his role in the pay-to-play investigation that spanned 2013-18 and led to Pawlowski and former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer serving time. The two former mayors were illegally awarding city contracts to companies that donated to their campaigns.
Pawlowski was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison after a jury found him guilty of the schemes, including those involving contracts for a city pool, tax collection service, cybersecurity and streetlight installation. Pawlowski is serving his sentence at a federal facility in Cumberland, Maryland.
Curtis, who spent decades working for the FBI in New York City and Allentown, also talked about developing sources, wiretapping evidence and the details of his time on the Pawlowski case.
“Investigating local, state corruption should be the emphasis, it should be the priority,” Curtis said. “When you read about a congressman or a senator being involved in corruption, they didn’t just start being corrupt when they got into Congress or the Senate. They had been corrupt for 30 years before that point, and they learned it at the local level.”
Curtis said lower-level jurisdictions often don’t want to pursue cases like Pawlowski’s for fear of provoking the ire of elected officials. He said public corruption had been going on in Allentown for years before he started on the case.
When Curtis transferred to the Allentown FBI branch in 2013, he was directed to look into rumors of corruption in the city, and he said Pawlowski made sense to take a look at because of his 2013-14 run for governor and his 2015 bid for the Senate. “It was prime time to be looking at him to be involved in corrupt activities at that point,” Curtis said.
Pennsylvania campaign finance law doesn’t limit campaign donations, which Curtis said is “one of the reasons Pennsylvania is one of the most corrupt states in the country.” He added that there is still public corruption happening in the state and there were leads from his 2013-2018 investigation he wasn’t able to follow up on at the time.
Curtis told students about the importance of getting to know how the local government operates when you’re investigating a case, noting how Pawlowski “neutralized” City Council by only allowing it to review contracts lasting five years in length. Pawlowski would award one-year contracts with the option to renew every year as a workaround.
Curtis also told students about the importance of developing sources and understanding their motivations in order to decide who to talk to and in what order during an investigation. He said this strategy can help an agent determine who they want to utilize in a wiretap. There are always two weak links, he said: those who are willing to cooperate and those who like to constantly talk about themselves and others. These are the best targets for gaining information.
“If you look at this case, a lot of the charges that the mayor got convicted on in trial, all had tapes as evidence to support the charges,” he said. “That shows the importance of having covert recordings. That’s why you want recordings. They’re going to be more blatant, the evidence is going to be clearer to understand.”
Curtis also spoke about how he convinced campaign advisers Michael Fleck and Sam Ruchlewicz to wear wires in the investigation into Pawlowski. He approached Ruchlewicz when he was on vacation in San Francisco and persuaded him to cooperate with the investigation within 30 minutes, Curtis said.
“I told him at that point, ‘Your whole life is a recording now, from the time you leave your house every day until the time you go home, you’re wearing a wire,’ ” Curtis said.
Curtis also spoke about the risks of approaching Ruchlewicz and Fleck to wear wires. He said because Fleck told some people Curtis didn’t anticipate, the investigation quickly entered the public phase, just as the FBI raided City Hall.
“Word finally started seeping out because Mike Fleck thought he was cute and he actually told a couple people that I approached him,” Curtis said.
Curtis also spoke about his surveillance efforts and Pawlowski’s fear that he was being wiretapped.
“This was a little shocking for me to realize that he was as paranoid as my mob defendants back in the day about being investigated and trying to insulate himself from an investigation going on,” Curtis said.
Carlton Rohrbach, a Bethlehem resident originally from Allentown, attended Curtis’ presentation through Penn State’s Senior Adults Gaining Enrichment program. He said he followed the Pawlowski case in the news as it happened.
“It’s hard to believe that there’s this kind of corruption in my city,” he said. “[Pawlowski] was very popular. People loved him. I have to say that’s scary.”
Allison Caputo, a freshman criminal justice major from Quakertown, said she wasn’t familiar with the Pawlowski case before Curtis’ presentation, but she was surprised to hear about public corruption happening in Allentown; she thought such scandals were more likely to happen in bigger cities, such as Philadelphia or New York City.
“The fact that it was such a large scale, public corruption scheme going on [in] just Allentown, Pennsylvania, and how long it was going on for, it’s just insane,” she said.
Caputo, who hopes to be a police officer, said one of her biggest takeaways from Curtis’ presentation was how important wiretapping was to the case.
Despite Curtis’ caution, for students learning about FBI investigations for the first time, Pawlowski’s takedown does resemble that of fictional dramas.
“It was like a television show thing that actually happened in real life with all the public corruption going on,” Caputo said. “It was just very surprising.”
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