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Allentown City Council hires ex-FBI agent who led Pawlowski probe to conduct investigation into alleged city hall discrimination

Scott Curtis talks at Penn State-Lehigh Valley. Curtis, a retired FBI special agent formerly with the Allentown field office, discussed two high-profile cases, including former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski's, during a campus presentation Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
Bob Yurko/Special to 첥Ƶ
Scott Curtis talks at Penn State-Lehigh Valley. Curtis, a retired FBI special agent formerly with the Allentown field office, discussed two high-profile cases, including former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s, during a campus presentation Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
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Allentown City Council voted 6-1 Wednesday to hire former FBI agent Scott Curtis, who led the investigation into former Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s pay-to-play schemes, to conduct an investigation into alleged City Hall workplace discrimination.

The vote was 6-1, with council Vice President Santo Napoli the only “no” vote.

In a phone interview, Curtis told 첥Ƶ that he will conduct a “neutral, independent and confidential investigation,” and would present his findings and recommendations to City Council upon completion.

“I would hope the administration and anyone in a supervisory position would be supportive and encourage full cooperation,” Curtis said.

Proponents of Curtis’ hire said he is the most qualified to conduct the investigation because of his past experience in Allentown. A council committee, consisting of members Ed Zucal, Ce-Ce Gerlach and Daryl Hendricks, selected Curtis’ firm, FLEO Investigations LLC, over two others that also applied.

“We were totally objective in our assessment of the vendors that applied, and I feel that the selected vendor was most qualified of all of them,” Hendricks said.

Napoli said he opposed the hire because he thought that City Council did not follow proper legal procedures.

The city issued a “request for proposals” on Dec. 13, seeking firms to conduct the investigation. But City Council did not follow the city’s pre-determined guidelines for issuing city contracts, which would have included a formal scoring process and pre-determined questions.

Instead, the council committee asked the firms a series of their own questions and voted on the hire without following specific guidelines outlined in the city charter.

“What I felt was missing from this legislation was, most notably, a process and transparency, those were the two things I didn’t see,” Napoli said.

Zucal said City Council created and followed its own procedure for Curtis’ hire, because the city charter allows council to conduct independent investigations, but does not explicitly outline how it should select an independent investigator. City Council issued Curtis a “letter of engagement” rather than a formal contract, which Zucal said would allow council to bypass the need for the mayor’s signature for the hire.

City Council in February also voted unanimously to exclude the city’s finance director Bina Patel from the process of selecting the firm to conduct the investigation, which members said would avoid a possible conflict of interest. City officials, including Mayor Matt Tuerk and deputy city solicitor Adam Rosenthal, said council’s choice not to follow city contract procedures could open the city up to lawsuits in the future.

The letter of engagement details Curtis’ hourly rate, but it is redacted on the city website to protect Curtis’ privacy, Zucal said. Council budgeted $300,000 for the investigation, and said that if Curtis billed more hours than that amount would cover, council would hold another vote.

According to the letter of engagement, Curtis will have subpoena power, meaning he can compel people to give testimony for the investigation.

Vicki Kistler, Allentown’s director of community and economic development, said Wednesday that city leaders “cannot wait for an investigation to put this to bed.” However, she said that the forthcoming investigation has created a sense of fear among city employees, particularly because of Curtis’ background in the FBI.

“There is a sentiment being shared that the FBI is coming to investigate the managers of the city,” Kistler said. “The implication of that is extremely unsettling to the workforce and I think that is by intent, that is how this company is being portrayed.”

Curtis is a retired FBI special agent best known for his role in the public corruption investigation of Pawlowski. From 2013-18, Curtis led an FBI probe into alleged pay-to-play schemes in Allentown City Hall, which intercepted electronic communications among city officials, wiretapped co-conspirators who secretly recorded conversations, and raided City Hall and Pawlowski’s home. The probe found evidence that Allentown officials rigged its process of awarding contracts to favor firms that made donations to Pawlowski’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

Pennsylvania ‘one of the most corrupt states,’ says former FBI agent who worked Ed Pawlowski pay-to-play case

On its website, FLEO Investigations is described as specializing in investigations of  “complex and sensitive matters involving fraud, corruption, harassment, discrimination or other crimes and misconduct.” According to Pennsylvania business records, FLEO was founded in August. According to a letter of engagement, Curtis will also contract Phoebe Eaton, a private investigator, to assist with the inquiry.

The proposed internal investigation, which City Council authorized last year, would look into allegations of discrimination and racism among city employees.

City Council first authorized an investigation into workplace problems last year, prompted by an open letter from the Allentown NAACP detailing some of the allegations, including that office supervisors verbally attacked Black and brown employees and some police officers had been called racial slurs by their co-workers. The letter specifically accused Mayor Matt Tuerk and other city leaders of ignoring and failing to address reported complaints. Tuerk has said in response that discrimination is not tolerated in Allentown.

Reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at Liweber@mcall.com.

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