Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Lesser Case: From criminal mastermind to common thief?

Illustration by Ryan Spahr

Illustration by Ryan Spahr

It was all so clear a year ago.

Steve Reed, the seven-term, former “mayor for life,” was exposed for what he was—a municipal mastermind, shuffling projects, political allies and toxic debt among the various branches of Harrisburg city government. The grand jury report, made public in July 2015, laid it out in exquisite detail. We learned, or thought we learned, about how Reed handled detractors. (“Thank you. You are fired,” he supposedly told a naysaying engineer.) We learned, or thought we learned, about the “binge artifact buying ‘addiction’” behind his repeated borrowing. (“You’ve got to stop this, you’ve got to cut it out, it’s just going to kill your career,” a key Reed aide supposedly warned.) And we saw, or thought we saw, how the “prudent stewardship and innovative thinking” of Reed’s early years eventually warped into a tendency to “gratify his own interests at the city’s expense.”

With these and other zingers, the report made for good reading. It told a story that one longtime Reed skeptic described as “Shakespearian,” striking upon themes of youthful ambition, the fickleness of fortune, and the corrupting influence of power. But was any of it true? In May, a judge tossed out 305 of the 449 criminal counts against Reed, saying they fell outside the statute of limitations. A month later, the state attorney general’s office announced it wouldn’t appeal. The remaining charges have to do with the alleged theft of artifacts and other city property that residents watched agents haul out of Reed’s Cumberland Street home earlier in 2015. Those are serious charges—the state solicitor general, Bruce Castor, noted that they carry a maximum combined sentence of 886 years—but they don’t include the running of a years-long “corrupt organization” alleged in the complaint. This raises an interesting question about the original grand jury report. If the charges are out, what becomes of the gripping story that supported them?

Earlier this year, the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin profiled Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office has brought headline-grabbing cases against Wall Street traders and corrupt state legislators. Among other things, the profile discusses Bharara’s use of “speaking complaints,” in which lengthy, descriptive narratives of the alleged crimes accompany the more legalistic affidavits of probable cause. Toobin ties their use in part to the proliferation of plea deals in federal prosecutions—with some 97 percent of federal defendants pleading guilty, a prosecutor might be tempted to write a detailed complaint telling the story of a crime that would otherwise have come out at trial. But these narratives can also deeply color a case with scintillating accusations that are far from proven. The article quotes a defense attorney, Henry Mazurek, who describes such complaints as “unnerving and disturbing and fundamentally unfair.” “The complaints tell a story and set a tone, especially in the press, that’s very hard to counteract,” Mazurek is quoted as saying.

The case against Reed is a state, not federal, prosecution, and there’s no evidence that the former mayor sought or was offered a plea deal. And, of course, it was Reed’s attorneys who raised the statute of limitations challenge against most of the charges; the fact that he won’t be fighting most of the criminal “narrative” in court is, in the end, a victory for the defense. Nonetheless, it’s worth wondering about some of the more alluring sections in the grand jury report, now that they are unlikely to be interrogated at trial. What to make, for instance, of the “bizarre meeting” with Reed, recalled by former City Council President Richard House, during which House “anxiously, and silently, wrote out and held up a note asking Reed whether he was recording the conversation”? The report concludes, elusively, “Reed responded by writing down that he was not recording the conversation and then asked if Mr. House was recording it.” Was this sinister, or was House simply paranoid? Needless to say, it would have been illuminating to see this fleshed out on the stand. (Jeffrey Johnson, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the presentment is “still a public document” that “gives a detailed narrative,” and that it was released “with every intention of proceeding with the prosecution.”)

Despite the dropped charges, the case appears to be far from over. The grand jury report referred to an “ongoing investigation” into “those named herein and others as yet unnamed”; as several have pointed out, it’s hard to run a corrupt organization on your own. There is still the possibility of a civil suit over the incinerator debt—last September, the state retained a D.C. law firm to pursue potential claims. The attorney general’s office, even if it files no additional criminal charges, could still issue an informational report, as it did in the grand jury investigation into sex abuse in the Catholic Church’s Altoona diocese.

For now, though, the cake is only half-baked. Residents who hoped an investigation would shed light on the city’s political disintegration and crippling debt have only a partial answer—a theory of corruption, but not the proof. (They also have a blanket denial from Reed, who said the grand jury report “contained so many mischaracterizations, so many misrepresentations, so many untrue things that it flabbergasts me.”)

Last summer, we heard a saga spanning three decades, one that began with a “dynamic and forceful” politician and ended with a shopping addiction and a city Reed had built as “a monument to him and not administered for the common good.” After the charges were dismissed, the attorney general’s office released a quieter, narrower statement. “With his fascination for the Wild West, this man used other people’s money to decorate his house and office with antiques,” it quoted Solicitor General Castor as saying. “But, Pennsylvania is not the Wild West. We have the rule of law here. We look forward to presenting our evidence in court.”

Paul Barker is a former senior writer for TheBurg.



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