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A lengthy criminal complaint filed against former Mayor Stephen Reed includes 499 counts involving bribery, theft and the misuse of bond funds.
A $6,500 “vampire hunter’s set,” a $4,750 hanging rope and knife, and Spanish armor valued at $14,000. Those are just a few of the items listed in documents issued on Tuesday outlining criminal charges against Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s former mayor, Stephen R. Reed.
Reed served as mayor of Pennsylvania’s capital city for 28 years. After he left office in 2010, a severe financial crisis unfolded in Harrisburg, with the city mired in hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, much of it issued to help pay for retrofitting a trash-to-energy incinerator.
Once ranked third in the international “World Mayor” contest, Reed, 65, is now charged with 499 criminal counts. These include allegations that he engaged in corruption, theft and bribery, and used municipal bond money to pay for illegitimate expenses, including collectibles.
A statewide investigating grand jury detailed and recommended the charges in a report that was made public on Tuesday.
“He was arrested for his role as the mastermind in a pattern of corruption that spanned approximately 20 years,” Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, said during a news conference where she announced the charges.
Kane went on to describe what she called the “Reed Model.” This, she said, involved issuing “public debt for one purpose, such as retrofitting the incinerator, or renovating schools,” and then diverting some of the proceeds to “a special projects fund,” which the mayor allegedly used to “buy things of his interest,” and to “pay fees to a close group of professionals.”
Reed was released on $150,000 of unsecured bail. After his arraignment on Tuesday he made a brief statement. “I am concerned that misperceptions and politics are very much intertwined in these accusations,” he told reporters, while standing next to his lawyer. “I regarded service as mayor to be a sacred trust and a calling to a high and noble purpose.” He added: “I devoted my life to the city of Harrisburg.”
According to Kane’s office, Reed is accused of using public money “at his discretion,” partly to obtain “thousands of artifacts” that were said to be destined for museums he had planned for the city of nearly 50,000 residents.
During his time in office, The National Civil War Museum opened in Harrisburg.
Plans that Reed had for a “Wild West” museum never materialized. But, in early June, investigators raided the former mayor’s home and carted away western artifacts, including saddles and what appeared to be a small totem pole.
Some of the curios listed in attachments to the report released Tuesday, like the $478 “Mormon polygamy letter,” and the $385 “Green Spitoon from Oriental Saloon in Tombstone,” may sound quirky, or raise eyebrows. But the allegations against Reed have ties to one of the more dire chapters in Harrisburg’s modern history and in the annals of U.S. public finance.
In 2011, the year after Reed’s nearly three-decade-long tenure ended, Harrisburg’s City Council voted to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, a move that was ultimately blocked under state law. At the time, the city had upwards of $360 million in public debt. Then-Gov. Tom Corbett eventually appointed a "receiver" to help steer the city out of its financial distress.
Chris Papst, who previously worked as a journalist in Harrisburg, describes the fallout the financial crisis triggered in his recently published book, “Capital Murder: An Investigative Reporter's Hunt for Answers in a Collapsing City.”
“Police and fire departments were slashed to historic lows,” Papst writes. “As unions fought to get paid, the murder rate spiked to eight-times the national average. Sinkholes felled entire city streets. The aging infrastructure spewed sewage into people’s homes.”
The city’s receivership ended on March 1, 2014, but the imprint of the fiscal mess lingers.
Harrisburg’s current mayor, Eric Papenfuse, issued a statement on Tuesday after the charges against Reed were announced.
“We, as a region, through exorbitant parking fees and sky-high trash disposal rates, continue to pay dearly for Mayor Stephen Reed’s financial misdeeds,” he said. “Any recovery, whether fiscal or political, requires at its foundation true accountability.”
The allegations against Reed involve not only the incinerator bonds, but also the finances of the Harrisburg School District, the Harrisburg Civic Baseball Club, and other municipal entities.
The grand jury report also describes testimony from Richard House, Harrisburg’s former City Council president.
House told the grand jury that Reed once offered him a job with the Harrisburg Senators, the city’s minor league baseball team. The position, director of community relations, did not exist at the time of the offer. House said he felt that it was clear that, in exchange for the job, Reed wanted his vote and help influencing others on the council.
According to the report, House also claimed that in a separate episode Reed asked “what he had to do for him personally” in order to get the council to approve the issuance of incinerator bonds. Based on his testimony, the conversation with Reed made House somewhat uneasy.
“House anxiously, and silently, wrote out and held up a note asking Reed whether he was recording the conversation.” the grand jury report says. “Reed responded by writing down that he was not recording the conversation and then asked if Mr. House was recording it.”
During his brief statement on Tuesday, Reed vowed to wage a “vigorous fight” against the charges.
“There’s much more to this story,” he said. “It’ll come out eventually, just not today.”
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.