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Former Rendell Aide to Plead Guilty to Wire Fraud

EsteyHow high up will the FBI’s pay-to-play probe go?

John Estey, a top Philly Democrat, is set to plead guilty to wire fraud charges stemming from a 2011 sting by the FBI, according to a report by Craig R. McCoy, Mark Fazlollah and Angela Couloumbis of the Inquirer.

On Friday, federal prosecutors and Estey’s lawyer announced the intended plea, sending another shockwave through state politics as the FBI’s corruption investigation continues to expand.

Estey was the Chief of Staff during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s first term (2003-2007), before moving to Ballard & Spahr to head the Philadelphia law firm’s lobbying arm.

It was during that time that Estey was snagged in an FBI sting to identify corrupt state lawmakers.

In October 2009, FBI agents posing as company executives of an “out-of-state business” hired Estey to represent them, according to the report.

A year and a half later, the agents gave Estey $20,000 to funnel to state lawmakers, which Estey said he would split between three lawmakers and a “particular leadership,” court documents show.

Instead of following through and breaking state campaign finance laws, Estey kept $13,000 for himself. Authorities did not say where the other $7,000 ended up.

The Inquirer found only one donation made by Estey after the agents gave him the bribe money – $1,000 to State Sen. Vincent Hughes in July 2011.

In late 2011 – when his cooperation with the FBI presumably began – Estey was hired by the Hershey Trust Company to serve as general counsel while the trust was being investigated by the PA Attorney General.

Estey held executive-level positions with the trust, including a stint as interim president of the Milton Hershey School, until being fired after the court documents were made public on Friday.

Estey – who also served as chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority and the Independence Visitor Center – started a political action committee that brought in $125K in just four days, though it is unclear whether this was in cooperation with federal agents, according to the report.

The Enterprise Fund had just three donors: Ross Nese, president of Grane Healthcare ($100K) and Danielle and Vahan Gureghian, founder/CEO of CSMI charter schools ($25K).

The Enterprise Fund only backed one candidate and it came a day too late. On May 21, 2014, the PAC contributed all $125K to former Treasurer Rob McCord’s run for Governor, a day after Tom Wolf won the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Last week, it was revealed that McCord wore a wire for the FBI for several weeks, before resigning and ultimately pleading guilty to federal charges in February 2015.

Elsewhere in the FBI’s play-to-play investigation, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s days in elected office must surely be numbered after his former campaign manager Mike Fleck pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery and one count of tax evasion.

Pawlowski is at the center of an investigation into his city’s contracting practices, while the FBI are also investigating one of Fleck’s other clients, former Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer.

Pawlowski and Spencer have yet to be identified as targets of the investigation or charged by authorities.

16 Responses

  1. Hey HaHaHa aka Brett Aka Jailbird. This story is about you when you were arrested. I found it in the newspaper for you. Are you going to pay the money back you stole from the elderly.
    Unsanctioned R2 says:
    May 11, 2016 at 4:18 pm
    Hey HaAHA aka Brett look you made the news when Fina arrested and convicted you. It’s nice to know that public sources still have this information. You gonna pay back any of the money you stole.
    Brett Cott
    HARRISBURG –Bonusgate defendent Brett Cott received a sentence of 21 to 60 months on three charges this morning.
    He also received three fines totaling $11,000 and was told to make restitution to the state of $50,000. The sentence was imposed by Dauphin County Judge Richard Lewis, who rejected Mr. Cott’s defense attorny’s plea for probation. Mr. Cott was found guilty on three charges: conflict of interest, theft of services, and conspiracy.
    The office of state Attorney General Tom Corbett had argued for a stiff sentence, claiming Mr. Cott had seriously misused taxpayer dollars in running as many as 20 political campaigns in Western Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2006.
    Mr. Cott’s attorney, Bryan Walk, had claimed that the prosecution was political and said that Mr. Cott was aqcuitted on 39 of 42 charges brought against him. However Judge Lewis said that Mr. Cott’s offenses were serious and deserved time in state prison.
    Read the sentencing memo for Brett Cott.
    The judge said Mr. Cott spent most of his time that was paid for on taxpayer dollars “orchestrating and mastermining political activity.” The judge said “public money was used like monopoly money to run campaigns. Some potential candidates were scared off by this taxpayer funded juggernaut. The public was also victimized.”
    He said probation was not an option because that “would demean the seriousness of the crimes.”
    Deputy Attorney General Patrick Blessington said that Mr. Cott was paid salary of $223,000 plus bonuses of over $39,000 from 2004 to 2006 for basically running political campaigns. Mr. Cott is the first of the Bonusgate defendents to be sentenced.
    Reactions to the sentence from prosecutors and the defense differed markedly.
    The stiff sentence “sends a loud and clear message that this kind of activity [illegal use of taxpayers funds for political campaigns] will not be tolerated, and people will pay for their crimes,” said Deputy Attorney General E. Marc Costanzo.
    In a brief submitted to the judge, the state contended that Mr. Cott’s “demeanor” wasn’t appropriate, meaning he hadn’t shown “contrition or remorse” for his illegal actions. He said Mr. Cott’s ongoing defiant attitude and lack of remorse were “appropriate legal factors” to be considered during the sentencing.
    Lawyer Walk, however, said he was shocked and “extremely disappointed” by the severity of the sentence, which could keep Mr. Cott in state prison for up to five years.
    “There are drug dealers and violent offenders who don’t get that much time,” he said. “We didn’t expect this.”
    He said that since Mr. Cott had no previous arrests or convictions, and since the jury had found him not guilty on 39 of the 42 charges that the state brought against him, he should have gotten probation and no jail time.
    Mr. Walk said the judge’s sentencing decision seemed to have been already prepared, even before this morning’s hearing, where the defense attorney spent almost an hour saying what a hard worker and good person Mr. Cott is.
    Mr. Walk said that if two of the original Bonusgate defendants, former House Democratic staffers Mike Manzo and Jeff Foreman — who made a deal to cooperate with the state and testified against Mr. Cott, “don’t get sentences that are more than Mr. Cott’s, then justice is dead.”

  2. 2 much Power for Far 2 Long is what caused this . Yet another reason to not let Lawyers be elected to public Office or be involved in any way in Politics or Running Organizations .

  3. Jason — You here at PPA keep forgetting to report on the Penn State 3 case. Why is that?

    It’s a huge case. In PA and even nationally. The prosecutor who handled the case is also a figure in the Kane saga. His name is Frank Fina. You may have heard of him.

    The Superior Court threw out most of Fina’s charges against the Penn State 3 and, in so doing, found that Fina’s conduct was “highly improper.”

    Another high-profile individual, Bruce Castor, just helped the OAG decide against appealing the Superior Court’s ruling.

    Why no articles here?

  4. I can smell the sweat pouring off the people who had conversations with Estey over the past 5 years, desperately trying to remember whether they phrased their asks for campaign cash, government grants, and other favors in a way that won’t get them indicted. This deal is going to make Illinois and New Jersey look like pantheons of good government.

  5. Poor embarrassed aaron the noob forced to cover for his fallen heroes. Pickin’ on Lil ol me; how transparently sad. Too funny.

  6. All these corruption threads. You’d think there weren’t any Republicans in Pennsylvania.

  7. My favorite part:

    “agents gave Estey $20,000 to funnel to state lawmakers….Instead of following through and breaking state campaign finance laws, Estey kept $13,000 for himself. Authorities did not say where the other $7,000 ended up.”


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