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Montco sheriff gets spotlight in Allentown corruption case

The pressure the mayor allegedly exerted on a pair of potential government contractors to pay for his tickets to a 2014 Eagles playoff game has now landed him in court and endangered the political prospects of another elected officeholder - those of Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny.

Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny.
Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny.Read more(Image via

It was the central payoff highlighted in the sprawling pay-to-play indictment handed up against Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski last month — a $5,000 night on the town, complete with tickets to a sold-out Eagles playoff game and a pricey steakhouse dinner.

Prosecutors say the mayor pressured two businessmen seeking city contracts to pay for his night out — one of the claims that has Pawlowski facing federal bribery and extortion charges. But the incident has also placed a spotlight on another elected officeholder now poised to be a key witness should the case go to trial.

Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny — who before assuming his post in 2015 worked as a lawyer under contract with municipalities across the region — admits he and a business partner picked up the tab for that 2014 evening. They also poured $14,000 more into Pawlowski's campaign coffers in pursuit of a $3 million tax-collection contract they ultimately won.

Kilkenny has not been charged with a crime and maintains he did nothing wrong. Still, lawyers for Pawlowski, a former Democratic gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate who has led Pennsylvania's third-largest city for more than a decade, are already sharpening their knives, and legal arguments, for trial.

"If taking Eagles game tickets is a bribe," defense lawyer Jack McMahon said, "then the bribers should be culpable, also."

Kilkenny, 44, a  U.S. Army reservist and Democrat who is in his first term in a countywide elected post, contended in an interview last week that he did not believe at the time that he was being extorted by Pawlowski, as federal authorities have alleged. Since his name first surfaced as part of the probe two years ago, he has forcefully and repeatedly asserted that he would do all he could to aid the investigation and that federal authorities had assured him he was in no danger of being charged.

"I've cooperated with the government from day one, and I'll do anything they ask to bring justice to the people of Allentown, including testifying in court," he said.

His lawyer, Michael Schwartz, describes Kilkenny as a "victim" of Pawlowski's misdeeds, one whose aid has helped prosecutors in a wide-ranging pay-to-play investigation that has already secured guilty pleas from nine government officials, businessmen, and political operatives across the Lehigh Valley.

State law does not prohibit those seeking government work from offering campaign contributions or gifts to elected officeholders with the power to award it. But Pawlowski's alleged federal crimes, prosecutors say, stemmed from linking that largesse to the decisions surrounding who would reap the rewards.

The mayor has denied their allegations that he "put a 'for sale' sign up on city hall" by shaking down businessmen — many of whom are now set to testify against him — during the awarding of six city contracts.

"The fact that my integrity is being called into question is something that hurts me deeply," Pawlowski told reporters after a hearing in federal court in Philadelphia last month. "I know I'm innocent and I know I've done nothing wrong."

According to the 60-page indictment, Kilkenny first entered Pawlowski's orbit in 2013, as Allentown sought bids for a contract for delinquent tax collections.

At the time, Kilkenny was the head of Jenkintown-based Friedman Schuman's municipal law practice and cochair of the law firm's political action committee, the Pennsylvania Liberty Fund. His firm partnered on a bid with Northeast Revenue Service, a Wilkes-Barre-based collection firm.

Prosecutors allege that Pawlowski told Kilkenny and the firm's co-owner, John P. Rogers, who is also expected to testify as a government witness, that the previous contract holder — Portnoff Law Associates of Montgomery County — "had not done anything for him."

And over the year, Kilkenny, Rogers and the Liberty Fund poured $14,000 into accounts for Pawlowski's mayoral war chest and his short-lived gubernatorial campaign that year.

Pawlowski, the indictment alleges, also sent a campaign consultant to Kilkenny with his request for tickets to the Eagles 2014 sold-out playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints. Rogers had tickets. He and Kilkenny treated the mayor and the consultant to a dinner at Del Frisco's steakhouse in Philadelphia before the four men went to the game.

Meanwhile, two former Allentown officials — Finance Director Garret Strathearn and Dale Wiles, an assistant city solicitor — were working to rig the contract bidding process to ensure that Kilkenny and Northeast Revenue emerged the victors. Both men have since told a federal judge that they did so at the mayor's request and have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

But Kilkenny, his lawyer Schwartz said, had no idea that Pawlowski was purportedly interfering with the bid process. In fact, Schwartz maintains his client later sent Pawlowski a letter with total costs from their trip to the Eagles game so Pawlowski could report them on his state-mandated financial disclosure forms.

"I expect that Sean Kilkenny will testify that he did, in fact, feel a bit uncomfortable when he was asked about going to an Eagles game and dinner with the mayor," the lawyer said. "But at the same time, he knew the mayor was a prominent Democrat in Northeastern Pennsylvania and that there was nothing improper about Sean, who was considering public office himself, to attend a sporting event with an elected public official."

Still, for Kilkenny, a man who openly describes himself as "politically ambitious," involvement in the case came at an inopportune time.

He had declared his candidacy for the Montgomery County sheriff's office just months before his name first appeared on subpoenas served during a well-publicized July 2015 FBI raid on Allentown's City Hall. He also had just struck out on his own, launching a five-man law firm in Norristown, after a long career at Friedman Schuman.

Since his role in the case first emerged, Kilkenny has focused on trying to fulfill campaign promises, such as working to diversify the Sheriff's Office. He also presided over security at high-profile court proceedings in Norristown, including the trials of Bill Cosby and Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Allentown canceled its contract with Northeast Revenue and Friedman Schuman earlier this year as scrutiny intensified surrounding the pay-to-play scandal. But Kilkenny's burgeoning law firm has landed legal services contracts with municipalities including Whitemarsh, Norristown, East Norriton, Jenkintown, Lansdale, and Morrisville.

No date has been set for Pawlowski's trial, but Kilkenny said he is eager to take the witness stand to clear up any questions that might remain about his dealings with the mayor.

"Those who participated in illegally rigging the award of municipal contracts should be brought to justice," he said. "I am proud to have cooperated with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney."