Former Rendell chief of staff to plead guilty in FBI lobbying sting |
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Tom Fontaine

A onetime chief of staff to former Gov. Ed Rendell has agreed to plead guilty to federal wire fraud charges in connection with an FBI undercover investigation of Harrisburg lobbying activities, federal prosecutors said Friday.

John H. Estey, 53, of Ardmore is accused of taking $20,000 from an undercover business created by the FBI five years ago. He told undercover agents posing as businessmen that he’d use their money to make campaign contributions to state lawmakers who could take — or not take — legislative action that would help their business, according to a federal court document.

“Estey represented that these contributions were necessary to gain access to and the attention of legislators, and to facilitate legislative action or inaction favorable to the (undercover business),” the document said.

Estey pitched the idea to an FBI agent April 28, 2011. A $20,000 check was deposited into his lobbying firm’s checking account the following May 10. But federal prosecutors said Estey made only $7,000 in campaign contributions to legislators and secretly kept the rest for himself.

“Mr. Estey is sorry for his mistakes. He has resolved this matter with the government and he hopes to move on with his life,” said Ronald H. Levine, a Philadelphia attorney representing Estey, who could not be reached.

The federal court document said Estey recommended making $5,000 contributions to three lawmakers and a $5,000 contribution to a leadership caucus.

During 2011, Pennsylvania Department of State records show that Estey made campaign contributions in his own name to state Sens. Larry Farnese ($1,000 on Jan. 31) and Vince Hughes ($1,000 on May 5 and $1,000 on July 7) and state Rep. Dwight E. Evans ($1,000 on April 28), all Philadelphia Democrats.

Records show he also contributed to Kathleen Kane ($2,500 on Dec. 12), then a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, and former state Treasurer Rob McCord ($1,000 on June 9), also a Democrat.

Farnese, Hughes and Evans did not return messages.

Estey worked as chief of staff to Rendell from 2003 to 2007. The former governor did not return a message. After leaving Rendell’s administration, Estey worked as a partner at the powerful Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr for several years before taking a job in October 2011 with the Hershey Trust, where he became executive vice president.

Estey did not return a message left for him at Hershey Trust. The trust’s CEO Eric Henry did not return a call.

Department of State records show that Estey began working as a lobbyist in 2008 and was last registered as one in 2012. His lobbying registration was terminated, the records show.

Estey’s name surfaced last year in connection with a 2014 campaign contribution to McCord after the former state treasurer came up short in his run for governor. McCord resigned as treasurer in January 2015 and later pleaded guilty to federal charges of shaking down two campaign donors. McCord said he told the donors that he, as treasurer, could make life difficult for them.

The indictment against McCord didn’t identify the donors.

Estey and Edward Cernic of Johnstown owned the Enterprise Fund political action committee that gave $125,000 to McCord the day after the 2014 primary election, in which McCord finished third in the Democratic gubernatorial race.

Estey faces up to 20 years in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000 on the felony wire fraud charge, prosecutors said.

U.S. Attorney Peter J. Smith of the Harrisburg-based Middle District of Pennsylvania recused himself from the case, handing off the duty of overseeing it to First Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis C. Pfannenschmidt.

When asked why, spokeswoman Dawn L. Mayko said, “(Smith) has recused himself from a series of public corruption cases, this being one of them,” and declined further comment.

Brian Bowling contributed. Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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