National News

Testimony in Corruption Case Hinges on the Meaning of ‘Meatballs’

Posted January 27, 2018 10:24 p.m. EST

When is a meatball not a meatball?

That was the question in a federal courtroom in Pennsylvania on Thursday, where the mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania, is on trial for charges wholly unrelated to that beefy fixture of nonnas’ kitchens across the country.

The mayor, Ed Pawlowski, a Democrat, faces charges of fraud, bribery and conspiracy for what federal prosecutors have described as a contract-rigging scheme. They have said he accepted campaign donations in exchange for benefits like city contracts. Pawlowski’s lawyers say that he is innocent, that there were no explicit pay-to-play agreements, and that the case was built with unreliable consultants to the mayor who were crooked themselves.

It is a classic allegation of City Hall corruption. And as Allentown’s former finance director Garret H. Strathearn testified for the prosecution that he had helped nudge a contract toward a company affiliated with one of Pawlowski’s supporters, talk turned to the classic dish.

The question turned on whether Strathearn and Mike Fleck, a political consultant for Pawlowski, were really discussing meatballs — seared, simmered and sauced — in a series of phone calls, or whether they had taken a cue from shady deals of yore and were using “meatballs” as a code word for a payoff.

Fleck, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and tax evasion in 2016, helped the government build its case. Pawlowski’s defense has argued that it was the mayor’s advisers and others, including Fleck, who behaved improperly, not the mayor himself. The prosecution, which has relied on the cooperation of those advisers, has sought to direct scrutiny away from them and toward the mayor.

Michelle Morgan, a federal prosecutor, played a recording of one of the phone calls between Strathearn and Fleck — an exchange posted online and transcribed in part by The Morning Call of Allentown.

In the recording, Strathearn is heard asking Fleck if he can come over to pick up some meatballs, and Fleck tells him to come by. In court, Morgan sought to portray Strathearn as a man who simply liked a good meatball and asked if Strathearn had ever eaten the Fleck family meatballs.

Strathearn said that he had indeed eaten meatballs prepared by the family at a Christmas party and that Fleck’s wife had promised to make him some more.

“I said, ‘Well, they’re really delicious,’ ‘We’ll make you some,’ and that’s what it was; they made me some meatballs,” Strathearn said.

In response to further questions from Morgan, Strathearn said that he was unmarried at the time and that he kept Tupperware in his car so he could take home leftovers whenever possible.

And, she asked, did he actually pick up said meatballs?

“Yes, I did,” Strathearn said, adding that he got fewer than he expected: four.

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

McMahon played Strathearn more recordings on the subject, according to The Morning Call. In one, Strathearn and Fleck discuss a contract that Strathearn testified to having steered to benefit a campaign donor. (He admitted to rigging the contract in early 2016.)

“You’re going to get your meatballs,” Fleck said, according to The Morning Call. Strathearn later replied, “That’s why you don’t want to lose that meatball recipe, you know?”

McMahon, the defense lawyer, was incredulous, and the ensuing exchange in court prompted a hail of objections from prosecutors.

“You want these people to believe that it’s really meatballs?” McMahon said, his voice rising. “It’s a payoff.”

Strathearn eventually responded, with a line that rivals one of Gertrude Stein’s finest: “The meatballs were the meatballs were the meatballs.”

“There was nothing to do with anything other than meatballs, period, paragraph,” he added. “And don’t laugh, because that tells me that you don’t believe me.”

Judge Juan R. Sanchez, clearly exasperated, called a short recess and then told the jury to ignore that exchange, according to The Morning Call. Meatballs are, of course, a rich and versatile dish — equally at home on pasta, rice or a sandwich — and it is not impossible to imagine their joining the vast library of code words for illicit activity.

Last year, investigators charged a Maryland state senator with accepting bribes and said he had used the word “lollipop” to refer to $1,000 cash payments, The Baltimore Sun reported. (The lawmaker, Nathaniel T. Oaks, is set to be tried in April.) In 2013, an associate of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger testified he had used the code phrase “the balloon is rising” to indicate that a man they were targeting was on the move. And most people who say they have to see a man about a horse, for example, are not equestrians.

Pawlowski, who was re-elected to his fourth term last fall despite the charges against him, has pleaded not guilty and has indicated plans to take the stand in his own defense. It is not known whether the subject of meatballs will come up.