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Will McCord's testimony sink other corruption cases?

HARRISBURG – A judge's bombshell decision last week to shut down the pay-to-play trial of Chester County businessman Richard Ireland was more than a crushing defeat for federal agents and prosecutors.

It threw into question the fruits of years of investigation into political corruption in Harrisburg.

Rob McCord, the former Democratic state treasurer turned government informer, revealed during the trial that Ireland was just one of several people who allegedly tried to trade him campaign contributions for favors or state business. Testifying for the first time since his own unexpected guilty plea two years ago, McCord also disclosed that he might be called to testify in at least one more criminal case.

Yet he ended his courtroom debut as a bruised, if not irreparably damaged, witness. So ineffective was his testimony that Judge John E. Jones III, who presided over the case, cited it as a key reason for dismissing all 79 counts against Ireland in midtrial. In short, Jones said that McCord didn't deliver, helping doom the government's case.

In an interview after Jones' decision, Bruce D. Brandler, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District, declined to comment on McCord's performance at Ireland's trial or say whether he would be a witness in a future case.

"I can say this -- public corruption is a high-priority area for this office and for the Department of Justice as a whole," Brandler said, adding: "We will continue to investigate allegations of public corruption wherever they occur, and nothing that the judge did [in Ireland's case] is going to deter us from prosecuting public corruption cases."

Asked if he knew of another federal case involving McCord in the works, Ireland's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, would say only, "I'm getting a lot of 215 calls," a reference to the area code for Philadelphia and some of its suburbs.

During his three days on the witness stand, McCord, a Bryn Mawr resident who won two statewide elections, painted an unflattering picture of how business sometimes gets done in Harrisburg.

In fits and starts, he described a culture where those with money try to gain power and influence over government decisions – and how elected officials sometimes toe the line when dealing with them.

But McCord sent shock waves around the courtroom when he acknowledged during cross-examination by Weingarten that he never believed he had an "if-then," or quid-pro-quo, relationship with Ireland, dooming the case.

In fact, he said, he never believed he had done anything wrong before he was confronted by the FBI. (McCord had resigned as treasurer in early 2015 after being caught attempting to extort campaign contributions during his unsuccessful run for governor in 2014, and agreed to secretly tape his conversations with Ireland and others.)

"I can't imagine a prosecutor letting a witness saying that," Peter Vaira, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said last week. "If he [McCord] is such a time bomb," he said, prosecutors will have to be ready.

Former prosecutor L. George Parry, a veteran Philadelphia lawyer, said prosecutors could still decide to use McCord as a witness in a future case, but "if McCord is not going to be a willing witness for the prosecution, that makes his use of limited value to the government."

McCord is still awaiting sentencing in his own case, and his level of cooperation is likely to be a consideration.

During Ireland's trial, McCord did say he engaged in quid pro quos with other businessmen who gave him campaign contributions, allegedly in return for favors or state contracts.

One, McCord said, was a Scranton-area businessman with "interests in trash stuff" who explicitly asked to have influence in choosing the secretary of environmental protection if McCord were to win the governor's office. McCord said he was soliciting at least $50,000 from the businessman when the request was made. McCord identified him as Billy Rinaldi.

Rinaldi has not returned multiple messages left at his business.

"I remember leaving that meeting and having a staff person say, `I feel like I need to take a shower,' " McCord told Weingarten. "And I remember thinking, this is a weird business because you say, `You lie down with dogs, get up with fleas' -- but you have to lie down, in a sense, with anybody in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to get stuff done."

Another alleged quid pro quo, McCord testified, was orchestrated in late 2013 by John H. Estey, the onetime chief of staff to former Gov. Ed Rendell. Unbeknown to McCord at the time, Estey had become ensnared in a federal corruption sting that began in 2009, and was secretly recording his conversations for the FBI, leading federal authorities to McCord.

Estey, McCord testified, was acting a middleman between him and a Republican businessman donor. McCord said the donor wanted him to help his son land a government contract, among other favors.

He did not name the donor, but McCord suggested Estey referred to him during one of their taped conversations. Estey, he said, told him the contributor wasn't interested in donating "for good government reasons."

"And I said, `I know, this is a quid-pro-quo type guy,' " McCord testified.

The Inquirer has reported that Estey launched a political action committee called the Enterprise Fund that got only two donations, both of which it gave to McCord. One was from Ross Nese, who heads a Pittsburgh-based nursing-home chain. He has previously declined to discuss the donation.

The other came from a PAC associated with Vahan H. and Danielle Gureghian. Vahan Gureghian is a Montgomery County lawyer and charter-school magnate and a top donor to Republicans in the state. Gureghian did not return calls late last week.

It is unclear if Estey's Enterprise Fund was set up as a government front. But during Ireland's trial, McCord said openly that his legal troubles with the FBI started after he was secretly recorded by Estey.

It is also unclear how long Estey was cooperating with federal authorities. The sting that ensnared him unfolded between 2009 and 2011.

Estey is scheduled to be sentenced next month, a strong signal that his work for the government is over – and that McCord is the only person against whom he helped federal authorities bring a case.

As for McCord, he does not yet have a sentencing date.