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Reading councilman pleads guilty in corruption case

Reading City Council President Francisco Acosta on Wednesday admitted his role in a bribery scheme involving the city's mayor and a consulting firm with a history of alleged efforts to skirt campaign finance laws in Philadelphia.

Reading City Council President Francisco Acosta on Wednesday admitted his role in a bribery scheme involving the city's mayor and a consulting firm with a history of alleged efforts to skirt campaign finance laws in Philadelphia.

Acosta, 39, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy, making him the first public official to face charges since a series of high-profile city hall raids last month in Reading and Allentown.

He told U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez that he took an $1,800 bribe meant to buy his support in repealing a city anticorruption ordinance - a statute that put caps on campaign contributions, and barred city officials from giving no-bid contracts to political donors.

Shortly before entering his plea Wednesday, Acosta resigned his post on the council. He is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 18.

"His position is he betrayed the trust of the city, and he wants to make amends for that," said Robert E. Goldman, Acosta's lawyer. "The only way he can do that is to own up to it, to accept criminal responsibility for it, and to assert what he did and who he did it with."

Court filings lay out a complex bribery scheme involving Acosta and two other officials - one identified as a person "who had the power to sign into law ordinances passed by City Council," and the other only described as an Acosta ally.

Goldman identified the first official as Democratic Mayor Vaughn Spencer and the latter as Acosta's wife, Reading School Board President Rebecca Acosta, who was then running in the Democratic primary for a district judgeship. She lost.

Spencer did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

According to Goldman, in an account that tracks with government court filings, before the city's May primary, Spencer approached Acosta seeking his support in repealing the campaign contribution limits. At the time, Spencer was seeking a second term, an election he would lose.

Spencer proposed loaning $1,800 from his own campaign coffers to Rebecca Acosta's campaign - a debt he pledged to forgive if Francisco Acosta successfully rallied the council to repeal the caps before the primary, Goldman said. If Acosta were to succeed, Spencer would promise that additional money from "third parties" would be contributed to her campaign.

The council president agreed and introduced a repeal bill three days after receiving a check from the consulting firm running Spencer's campaign.

"Acosta attempted to persuade other members of City Council to pass the repeal bill before the primary election by falsely asserting that he was motivated solely by the best financial interests of Reading and by concealing that he had received the bribe," the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia said in a statement.

After FBI agents confronted Acosta on the bribe and the councilman absented himself from the vote, the bill failed.

But despite Acosta's plea, the investigation appears to be far from over.

Last month, FBI agents executed search warrants in Reading and Allentown city halls seeking information on contracting processes, on a number of contractors, and on a Lehigh Valley political consultant who worked on campaigns for both Spencer and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

Sources familiar with the probe have said that a consultant, Michael Fleck, wore a wire as part of the investigation. He shut down his business and moved out of his Allentown house within days of the FBI raid.

Goldman said Wednesday that one of Fleck's employees, Sam Ruchlewicz, was responsible for delivering the $1,800 bribe to Acosta this year.

Ruchlewicz could not be reached for comment. His name surfaced two years ago in a separate alleged scheme to skirt campaign finance laws during Spencer's first mayoral run in 2011.

In 2013, the Berks County Board of Elections found that Spencer and Fleck laundered political donations for Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, allowing the union to dodge contribution caps in two Philadelphia City Council races.

According to the board's report, the union cut Spencer a $30,000 check - the largest contribution to his campaign. The same day, Spencer's campaign donated $10,000 each to the Council campaigns of then-incumbent Bill Green and candidate Bill Rubin.

Donations to Green and Rubin from Local 98 had reached or were approaching Philadelphia's $10,600 contribution limit per candidate.

Spencer and Local 98 head John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty denied the allegations at the time. State Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane picked up the investigation, but charges were not filed.