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Former Philly school official pleads guilty to federal Allentown contract charge

The former managing director of Allentown who once blew the whistle on a no-bid camera contract in the Philadelphia School District pleaded guilty Wednesday to participating in a pay-to-play scheme to benefit Allentown's mayor.

Standing before the same federal judge in Philadelphia who had presided over his civil trial against the Philadelphia School District two years ago, Francis X. Dougherty, 50, pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with a $3 million contract for streetlights.

As part of his plea agreement, Dougherty, of Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County, agreed to cooperate and provide truthful and complete testimony before any "grand jury, hearing, or trial" involved with the FBI's continuing investigation into corruption in Allentown.

Lisa Mathewson, Dougherty's attorney, said her client has always been a public servant dedicated to serving the public rather than himself.

Dougherty, a former deputy chief of operations for the Philadelphia School District, filed suit in 2012 alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated and that he was wrongfully fired the year before for exposing a $7.5 million no-bid contract for school surveillance cameras.

His was one of four civil suits filed after the Inquirer reported in November 2010 that former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman had pushed aside a Bucks County company that had begun preliminary work on the emergency contract to install the cameras and directed that the contract be awarded to a small, minority-owned firm instead.

In his suit, Dougherty disclosed that he had been a confidential source for the Inquirer article.

A federal jury in 2015 found that Ackerman and another former administrator had violated Dougherty's rights by placing him on leave during an investigation into leaks about the contract and recommending that the School Reform Commission fire him. Ackerman died in 2013.

The SRC agreed to pay Dougherty $725,000 to settle his federal claims and cover part of his lost wages and legal bills.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Juan Sanchez, who had presided over Dougherty's civil trial, acknowledged in court that he was familiar with Dougherty's background.

"He invited us to tell the complete story [behind the criminal case] at the time of sentencing," said Mathewson, who also represented Dougherty in the civil case. "We look forward to doing that."

The investigation into the political scene in Allentown became known in July 2015 when the FBI seized computers, cellphones, and records tied to city contracts.

To date, seven people -- including Mike Fleck, the former campaign manager of Allentown Mayor Edward Pawlowski -- have pleaded guilty to charges related to their involvement in an effort to award contracts to favored bidders in exchange for donations to the mayor's political campaign.

Pawlowski, a Democrat who is in his third term as Allentown's mayor, has not been charged.

Court filings in the cases of Dougherty and the others describe efforts to raise campaign contributions for an elected official identified as "Public Official #3" who had said he would announce his candidacy for a position in the federal government around April 17, 2015.

Pawlowski announced he would run for the U.S. Senate on that day. He ended his campaign a year later.

According to the documents unsealed Wednesday, Dougherty interfered in the awarding of the $3 million street-lighting contract to make sure the favored bidder won.

And in the early spring of 2015, the government said, Dougherty confronted Allentown's acting Public Works director "and threatened to fire someone" because language giving the edge to the preferred vendor had been omitted.

The maximum sentence that Dougherty could receive is five years in prison, three years' supervised release, and a $250,000 fine. He also could be ordered to make full restitution.

As part of the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney's Office said it may request a lesser sentence based on the level of cooperation Dougherty provides.