Harrisburg, PA – A local community organization has exposed a media cover-up by news outlets that have a vested interest in the mayor of Harrisburg.
It has been alleged that city officials, including Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, engaged in a real estate scandal for personal enrichment, according to a federal lawsuit being heard by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Now a group of Harrisburg citizens with the support of a community organization have exposed local media outlets after PennLive.com, and theBurg ignored one of the biggest stories of corruption to hit the City of Harrisburg.
When details of the real estate scandal recently went public, lawsuit documents revealed an FBI investigation related to the corruption of Harrisburg officials. This has hamstrung the efforts of the city’s legal team to have the case dismissed.
As time continues to pass with no official update, city residents and property owners are questioning why the local media outlets won’t press Harrisburg officials, or dig deeper for details of the federal investigation. A group in Allison Hill have raised concerns about the mayor’s financial ties to the owner of theBurg, and his very cozy relationship with Pennlive’s new top editor.
Owner of theBurg, J. Alex Hartzler, is the principle contributor of the mayor’s re-election efforts. Hartzler’s Harrisburg political action committee that formed in 2013 heavily supported Mayor Eric Papenfuse, quietly endorsed many candidates for city council, school board hopefuls, and other offices needed to execute his agenda.
In 2013, a campaign objective for the newly formed PAC was to wage a $100,000 war against Dan Miller’s mayoral bid.
J. Alex Hartzler and the political action committee he founded, Harrisburg Capital PAC, have made several significant donations to Harrisburg mayoral candidate Eric Papenfuse’s campaign.
It’s not the first time that the mayor has been accused of abuse of power involving his top donor. In 2017, mayoral candidate Gloria Martin-Roberts alleged that Eric Papenfuse and J. Alex Hartzler committed voter suppression at the polls on election day.
As the proceedings now carry on, legal expenses related to the federal lawsuit translate into a real financial cost in the annual budget of the City of Harrisburg, and it is a matter of fact for which Director of Finance & Budget Bruce Weber has recently made numerous allocations.
When asked for comment, Weber quickly dismissed any hint of a looming settlement by the city. “I’d rather have the courts adjudicate. That’s what they are there for. Due process.”
If the city did opt to settle, most likely the details would not be made public. A gag order may be agreed upon in the case at settlement, although at this juncture the city continues to mount its defense.
When questioned about the local media’s suspicious lack of due diligence, Weber was readily prepared to respond conveniently in defense of the mayor’s cronies, stating, “the media doesn’t report on every lawsuit.”
Prior to the change of regime at Pennlive, Mayor Papenfuse publicly aired his feud with the previous editor’s negative coverage of Harrisburg, then calling PennLive ‘not a legitimate news source.’
“I am thoroughly excited about going back into journalism with PennLive,” Joyce Davis said. “I am still a bit pained to have to leave the city and working with a mayor who I have come to both admire and respect… but I look forward to being able to help the city in a different way.”
Background of Federal Lawsuit
The case is being heard by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The lawsuit implicates city and county officials named in the real estate scheme that involved targeting property owners, and illegal judicial sale of properties.
During a meeting with an F.B.I. agent in Harrisburg, the city resident at the center of the scandal submitted evidence of public official corruption. The resident has been targeted by the city administration as a whistleblower.
The whistleblower had his life threatened by Karl Singleton, former senior advisor to Mayor Papenfuse, for politically motivated reasons. Magisterial District Judge David O’Leary ruled against the senior advisor in the case, thus resulting in Singleton immediately being removed from Papenfuse’s administration.
The mayor allegedly used public departments to target private property owners and city residents that were perceived to be whistleblowers. The plaintiff has submitted documented evidence as proof that he was repeatedly targeted and excessively fined by city codes enforcement officers, as directed by the mayor.
Under oath, Former Codes Official Arden Emerick testified to Magisterial District Justice Margeram that he was specifically directed by the mayor to cite the plaintiff of the federal lawsuit.
The Bureau of Codes administrator also illegally held up building permits against the plaintiff, effectively targeting his livelihood. These tactics are being used to force private property owners out of Allison Hill, as the lawsuit alleges.
Growing U.S. Trend: Local governments using fines and outright forfeitures to take control of property and pad their budgets
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits these excessive fines
The City of Harrisburg has a history of using the Codes Enforcement office as a weapon. It was widely reported in 2014 when the city had a pastor jailed over a church building, a case in which all charges were later dropped.
Pastor Sullivan believes he was actually being targeted by the city for political reasons other than the church. At 48 years-old, the pastor found himself in the hospital as a result of undue stress from the matter.
Also in 2014, early in the first term of Mayor Papenfuse, the City of Harrisburg illegally removed jurisdiction of housing codes violations from the local magistrates, and sent all code violations 45 minutes away to a courtroom in Elizabethville.
Now described as an abuse of power, the court, which Mayor Eric Papenfuse pushed for, enabled the city to push its development agenda on property owners in a struggling city.
A key driver behind the Harrisburg housing court, which was very quietly shut down in 2019 was Bureau of Codes Administrator David Patton. The Housing Court funneled cases for codes outside of Harrisburg City Magisterial District Courts, therefore violating the rights of private property owners in Harrisburg.
The plaintiff has alleged that Mayor Papenfuse used Rebirth, LLC, as a dummy corporation with no true purpose other than to move real estate from government ledgers for personal gain, while simultaneously using funds from the city, at his direction as Mayor, to demolish [condemned] structures in an effort to relieve personal financial burden.
According to legal documents, an employee of Mayor Papenfuse’s bookstore was connected to Rebirth, LLC, the illegal straw buyer of parcels on Rudy Road in Central Allison Hill.
The plaintiff contends that this is an insider trading scheme, and works in conjunction with the efforts of the city to push him out of the city, and then take over his building, which is a highly sought after location by the city.
The location of the plaintiff’s property at 333 S. 18th Street, adjacent to the Rudy Road properties, is strategically important for Capital Region Water’s storm water and sewage system upgrades.
Likewise, this set of properties is a key location needed for the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority’s plans being developed through the recent brownfield study, where 37 parcels were targeted for uses that coincide with plans similar to those within the comprehensive plan.
Those plans could only be implemented after a massive zoning change, which eliminated every industrial use, for every industrial building – which then lead to the coordinated effort with the codes office to target owners, and drive them out of their property.
The Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority planned to use CREDC as a conduit buyer.
The Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority then took plans submitted by the plaintiff, which were denied by the city codes office, and openly claimed the same plans – (idea by idea, square foot by square foot) as they pursued a separate building with another investor.
The plaintiff believes that the scheme was executed under the guise of being in the public’s best interest as a “plan developed by the people,” and for that purpose it was intentionally worked into the city’s failed comprehensive plan, under the section called Meander Park in the proposal.
The effect of rezoning in Harrisburg created land use restrictions, increased taxes, and other financial burdens on property owners. This was allegedly done intentionally in Allison Hill to devalue real estate, and funnel private property through HRA and CREDC.
As the city’s legal team continues to battle the allegations, top city administrators have made attempts to publicly down-play the implications of the lawsuit, including Finance Director Bruce Weber, who presents himself as the unofficial voice of the Papenfuse administration, via social media.
The local media’s lack of coverage is stunning considering the egregious accusations, and substantial evidence in the case.
The federal lawsuit, docket number 1:19-cv-00657-CCC-JFS, is being heard by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.