Covert recordings, political bribes, raided offices and now, federal indictments. An FBI probe is dismantling an entire political administration after uncovering deep corruption within. But these politicians aren't in Congress or even in a state governor's office. This scandal is ripping through the tiny city council of Allentown, Pa., and the FBI is throwing everything it's got into the investigation.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Our next story has all the trappings of an ugly political scandal - big money, corrupt officials, fleeced taxpayers, even a political operative-turned-informant complete with an FBI microphone stashed in his suit. It sounds like Washington intrigue, but Andrea Seabrook reports this has been playing out since Allentown, Pa.
ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: There are only seven people on Allentown's City Council, but the vote they took on Wednesday night was a big one.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Glazier.
JEFF GLAZIER: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Guridy.
JULIO GURIDY: Yes.
SEABROOK: The room is packed - no seats left, so citizens stand along the sides and the back of the room. The question at hand - should Allentown's mayor resign?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. President, I have seven yea and no nays.
O'CONNELL: Thank you, Mr. Hammond (ph).
SEABROOK: Just about every one of these city council members was a long-time staunch ally of Mayor Ed Pawlowski. Most got elected with his help. They're only calling for his resignation now after the FBI raided Pawlowski's offices, four of his associates have been indicted and the city's financial controller pleaded guilty last week to fraud. City Council President Ray O'Connell.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
O'CONNELL: Maybe it is too little, too late. Maybe it is too little, too little too late. But it is here and it is now.
SEABROOK: Now, it's not common for the FBI to investigate small-town, local politics, much less raid the offices of a mayor. But in this case, Allentown is at the center of a pay-to-play scheme that could travel far outside Pennsylvania. The city is key though. For most of the 20th century, Allentown had a booming economy. Mack trucks were built here. Western Electric made phones and other systems for Ma Bell. But by the year 2000, those companies were gone, along with most high-paying jobs. It's a classic Rust Belt story. Enter Mayor Ed Pawlowski. He was instrumental in passing a state law that set up big money incentives for businesses to relocate and build in downtown Allentown. In the last few years, close to a billion dollars of taxpayer money has poured into development contracts with big businesses. But now FBI documents filed with the federal indictments show that many of the companies who received those contracts were also big donors to Pawlowski's political campaigns. After a close ally of the mayor wore an FBI wire, it became clear that Pawlowski himself had rejiggered the city's bidding process. According to the charges, he was making sure if those big contracts went to the right companies.
ERIC DOWDLE: People that were donating money to him, people that expected something in return - God help them.
SEABROOK: This is attorney Eric Dowdle. He represents the former city controller, the one who pleaded guilty last week to fraud. Dowdle invokes that ever true axiom of all political scandals - follow the money. In this case, the FBI is investigating everyone from the chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to at least one big-time fundraiser in national politics - Jack Rosen. He's raised serious money for both Clintons and Barack Obama. Oh, yes, and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. Jack Rosen's businesses have also made a lot of money in Allentown. Attorney Eric Dowdle says this might explain why all the federal scrutiny.
DOWDLE: The prosecutors, the U.S. attorneys that assigned to this case are very capable and as it comes to criminal investigations, it's very dangerous. And I think that there are a lot of people who are incredibly nervous right now.
SEABROOK: As for the mayor, Pawlowski skipped the city council meeting. After the unanimous vote calling on him to resign, he released a statement calling the move a stunt and a waste of time. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Seabrook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.