Former Reading official faces sentencing Friday in bribery case

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After telling a judge her crime was because of a lack of character, former Reading School Board member Rebecca Acosta was sentenced Friday to a year and a half in federal prison for soliciting a bribe in a case with ties to the pay-to-pay probe that snared ex-Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
Chief U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez accepted the 18-month federal prison sentence recommended under a plea agreement Acosta struck with prosecutors days before she was set to stand trial in August on multiple corruption-related charges. The sentence, which includes three years of probation and a $1,000 fine, was sufficient to punish Acosta for what he and prosecutors agreed was a serious crime, Sanchez said.
Acosta, the one-time Reading School Board president, legislative aide and district judge candidate, admitted she sought a campaign contribution from former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer in exchange for her husband, former Reading City Council President Francisco Acosta, promoting the repeal of a local campaign finance limit.
“The lack of character I had was I had the choice to say ‘no’ and I didn’t,” Acosta said. “The Good Book says we need to obey the laws of the land, and not knowing them will not exclude us from them, and that’s why I’m standing here before you accepting my fate.”
Defense attorney Coley Reynolds called the sentence a sad end to Acosta’s political career, noting that as a school board member she acted in the best interest of Reading schools.
“She got caught up in a scheme of the mayor’s and her husband’s,” Reynolds said. “If, as she said, she had the character to say ‘no,’ I don’t think we’d be sitting here today.”
Francisco Acosta did not attend the hearing Friday.
Sanchez ordered Rebecca Acosta to report to prison Feb. 4. Her attorney requested she be assigned to a minimum security camp in Connecticut or West Virginia.
Acosta, 41, was indicted on seven corruption-related charges in July 2017 with former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer and Allentown lobbyist James Hickey. The charges were the result of an FBI investigation that employed Spencer’s 2015 re-election campaign manager, Mike Fleck, and Fleck’s employee, Sam Ruchlewicz, as undercover informants.
At the same time, federal prosecutors indicted Pawlowski, Hickey and Allentown lawyer Scott Allinson in a pay-to-play case centered on Allentown City Hall . It was also built largely on evidence gathered by Fleck and Ruchlewicz, who both worked on Pawlowski’s campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate.
Acosta pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services wire fraud. Sanchez dismissed the remaining six charges Friday at the request of prosecutors.
“This crime goes to the core and undermines the public trust in government and … our democratic way of life by subverting our democratic institutions,” Sanchez said.
According to court documents, Spencer determined that to win re-election in 2015 he needed to keep a number of campaign contributions that exceeded Reading’s $2,600 limit on donations from a single person. He devised a scheme to have the law repealed, seeking the support of then-council President Francisco Acosta.
Fleck and other operatives promised contributions of between $1,000 and $2,000 to Rebecca Acosta’s district judge campaign as well as up to $10,000 more from Spencer’s supporters in exchange for Rebecca and Francisco Acosta’s assistance, court documents say.
When a Spencer campaign operative told Rebecca Acosta to ensure her husband pursued the repeal legislation, she complained she had not received the campaign money, documents show. The operative assured her that once the campaign donation limit was repealed, she would receive the donations. After introducing the repeal in City Council, Francisco Acosta was interviewed by the FBI, prompting him to recuse himself from the vote, which failed.
Spencer was convicted in August on 11 corruption-related charges stemming from that scheme and others in which he sought campaign contributions in exchange for city contracts. Spencer’s sentencing is scheduled for March 15. Hickey pleaded guilty in both the Reading and Allentown cases and was sentenced in May to 18 months in prison.
Pawlowski was convicted in March of 47 corruption-related counts and sentenced to 15 years in prison . Allinson was convicted of a single bribery charge and sentenced to 27 months in prison, but remains free on bail while he appeals. In all, 16 people, including Fleck and Francisco Acosta — who pleaded guilty in 2015 and served two years in prison — were convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges in both cases. Fleck’s sentencing is Feb. 7. Ruchlewicz was not charged with a crime.
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