Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Six-term mayor Stephen Reed’s wild corruption scandal brought the Pennsylvania capital to the brink of bankruptcy. But the city’s residents will end up paying for his crimes.
Stephen Reed used to be known as Harrisburg’s “Mayor for Life.” His tenure as head of the Pennsylvania capital spanned almost 30 years, and in some quarters he still holds that title, even after he was voted out of office in 2009. Now he may be known as the “Mayor Who Avoided Life,” after dodging a sentence of thousands of years in prison for a 499-count indictment of theft, bribery, and corruption while he was mayor.
Today, Reed was sentenced to two years probation after pleading guilty to 20 counts of the least-serious crimes on his docket. Earlier this week, he admitted that part of his small collection of artifacts was bought with taxpayer money. The stolen items were part of an even larger collection of Civil War-era trinkets, documents, statues, and other memorabilia left over from Reed’s failed campaign to make Harrisburg a “city of museums.” Reed began siphoning taxpayer money into a secret account that he used to purchase heaps of 19th century American relics, all in an effort to transform the city into a “Westworld” of the East.
This was just one of Reed’s poorly (and criminally) conceived schemes that brought Harrisburg to the brink of bankruptcy—and almost landed the ex-mayor a 2,439-year jail sentence. How he got off with a two-year no-prison cakewalk instead is owed to a unique confluence of circumstances: The attorney general who indicted him was overtaken by her own scandal and removed from office; most of his worst charges (bribery and corruption) were dismissed because the statute of limitations ran out; and, well, he’s Stephen Reed.
Before breaking all of that down, It’s important to note how this all started: a mayoral messiah complex. When Reed took office in 1982, Harrisburg was a shrinking, economically dying city, and he was determined to revive it by any means necessary. He recruited a Double-A baseball team, the Harrisburg Senators, and installed them in a new waterfront stadium. He filled the hollowed-out downtown with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. For extra points, he helped upgrade the local community college into a full university, at least in name.
Reed’s urban revitalization ideas led to a measurable bounce-back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Then he got greedy. Playing Night at the Museum with taxpayer money was far from the worst of his decisions. He also bet the farm on a gargantuan waste incinerator project that was doomed from the beginning, and that alone put the city over $300 million in debt. All of this was happening while Reed continued on a shopping spree for even more historical items, to realize his ultimate dream of filling the city with museums dedicated to sports, black history, and the Wild West. Meanwhile, little economic development attention was given to the Allison Hill and Southside neighborhoods, home to the city’s African-American and Puerto Rican communities.
As David Gambacorta wrote in The Baffler, “[Reed’s] case offers a stark reminder that the urban renewal and revitalization initiatives of the last century continue to dog our cities—and that too many of those initiatives turned out to be rip-offs, luring tourists to urban ‘playgrounds’ at the expense of existing residents.”
It was the incinerator fail that triggered an audit of Reed’s wheeling-and-dealing connected to that and some of his other signature enterprises, like the baseball team. After an 18-month investigation, a grand jury returned with the 499-count indictment, the vast majority of which were tied to chicanery of the highest order that Reed used to try to close deals. But all of the felony charges—corruption, misappropriation of public funds, deceptive business practices, and bribery—were dropped because the state attorney general’s office waited until months after the statute of limitations for them lapsed to officially file them. Not only that, but the prosecutor heading this case was Kathleen Kane, the AG who had to resign and was stripped of her law-practicing license for her role in the notorious “porngate” scandal. (Kane’s case is more complicated than its label, but that’s for another story.)
Once these charges were thrown out, Reed was still stuck with 144 remaining counts of theft. He faced 886 years in jail. And up until this week he was prepared to fight that. But on Monday, which was supposed to be the first day of his trial, Reed shocked the system by pleading to 20 counts of the pettiest theft charges involving a bunch of old letters, wallets, and other Ol’ Western goodies.
Reed got away with stunts like this for years: He won re-election as mayor six times, and was dubbed “Pennsylvania’s most popular and successful mayor” as late as 2003. How was he able to pull off one last great escape? Again The Baffler’s Gambacorta was on point about this:
No one was really prepared to question Reed, or to peek behind the curtain of his kindly, eccentric persona. If they had, they would have found a petty autocrat hunkered down on a pile of redevelopment schemes, mistaking hoarding for a model for governance—a scenario only too possible in municipal America, the land that term limits forgot. The artifacts? Oh, they were just the spoils of a spending bender fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
No need to make comparisons here to that other “Mayor for Life,” D.C.’s infamous Marion Barry, or New Orleans’ former Mayor Ray Nagin, who is currently serving time for his own kickback schemes. Their financial misdeeds were also brazen, if not reckless. But nothing like almost putting one of the nation’s most populous states’ capital out of business.