The meaning of ‘meatballs’ could sway case in Democratic mayor’s corruption trial

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Allentown, Pa., Mayor Ed Pawlowski walking to court last November.

 (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The Democratic mayor of Pennsylvania’s third-largest city is standing trial for allegedly trading city contracts for cash to fuel his political ambitions — and his fate may depend on meatballs, according to reports.

Specifically, whether or not his aides used the word “meatballs” literally.

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, 51, who began a fourth term this month, faces an indictment that includes dozens of accusations of fraud, bribery, attempted extortion and lying to the FBI. The most serious charges carry a maximum prison term of 20 years each.

Prosecutors said Pawlowski rigged a series of contracts to go to law firms and businesses that supported his campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate, retaliated against vendors that refused to play along or didn’t give sufficiently and tried to hide his tracks.

Pawlowski’s defense has argued that it was the mayor’s advisers and others, including Fleck, who behaved improperly, not the mayor himself, according to The New York Times. The prosecution, which has relied on the cooperation of those advisers, has sought to direct scrutiny away from them and toward the mayor, claiming he rigged millions of dollars in contracts for legal, engineering, technology and construction work.

Pawlowski’s political consultants, Mike Fleck and Sam Ruchlewicz, cooperated with the government and secretly recorded conversations with the mayor.

The question in court is: in taped recordings between Fleck and Allentown’s former finance director Garret H. Strathearn, were the men really discussing literal meatballs? Or, were they taking a cue from shady deals of yore and using “meatballs” as a metaphor for a payoff?

“So, this is not code for a bribe? Did you actually go to Mike Fleck’s to pick up meatballs?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan asked Strathearn, who responded with a yes, according to The Morning Call, of Allentown.

“Did you actually get meatballs?” Morgan asked.

“How many did you get?” Morgan asked.

“Four,” Strathearn replied.

Pawlowski’s lawyer, Jack McMahon, according to The Times, seemed to view “meatballs” as something more in line with “clams,” “dough” and “cheddar.”

“You want these people to believe it’s really meatballs?” McMahon yelled. “It’s a payoff, Mr. Strathearn. You know, I know and everybody knows.”

“The meatballs were the meatballs were the meatballs. There was nothing else involved, counselor,” Strathearn responded.

Judge Juan R. Sanchez later told the jury to ignore that exchange, according to The Morning Call.

The Associated Press contribued to this report. 

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