HARRISBURG, Pa. – The former mayor of Pennsylvania’s capital city was arrested Tuesday on corruption charges, including allegations he unlawfully used public money from various agencies to buy thousands of artifacts for what he claimed was a plan to open a Wild West museum and other historical attractions.
Former Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed, who served 28 years in office, obtained the money for the purchases by secretly diverting funds borrowed by municipal agencies and other entities for other purposes that later helped the debt-laden city careen toward bankruptcy, prosecutors said.
“This diversion was actively hidden from investors and the city of Harrisburg,” Attorney General Kathleen Kane said at a Capitol news conference.
Reed, 65, faces hundreds of counts of theft and misapplication of government property, as well as charges of criminal solicitation, bribery and evidence-tampering. Reed said he will fight the charges.
The former mayor spent diverted dollars on thousands of “artifacts and curiosities,” the attorney general’s office said, supposedly for museums that never opened. The purchases included a life-size sarcophagus, antique firearms, a full suit of armour and a vampire hunting kit.
The attorney general’s office said it was still tabulating the total amount of illegally diverted money and the amount illegally spent, a spokesman said.
Some of the money for the artifacts came from the more than $200 million borrowed for the renovation of the city’s aging and polluting municipal trash incinerator, prosecutors said. The project contributed heavily to the near-financial collapse of the Susquehanna River city of about 49,000, where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line.
Other sources of money included Harrisburg’s impoverished schools and a minor league baseball team once owned by the city.
Following his arraignment, Reed insisted that he had served the city honourably and that he was “concerned that misperceptions and politics are very much intertwined in these accusations.”
His attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., said the charges “may be inspired more by political agendas than by a search for justice.”
When Reed became Harrisburg’s mayor in 1982, the shrinking, decaying city was near total collapse — its department stores, theatres and trolleys were gone, replaced by vacant buildings and streets devoid of nightlife.
His dream was to transform it into a cultural “city of light.” Under Reed, hotels and restaurants sprouted in downtown and a minor-league baseball team began playing in a park that rose from a trash dump.
In 2001, Reed opened the National Civil War Museum on an abandoned reservoir overlooking the Capitol — even though none of the war’s major battles occurred in the city.
His aim of building the National Museum of the Old West next to it stalled in 2004 after City Council members found out about his practice of taking taxpayer-paid trips to antique shops around the county to amass the collection. News of the purchases were met with derision — Harrisburg is 1,500 miles from Buffalo Bill’s grave in Golden, Colorado — and concern that the city was already staggering under the incinerator debt.
He also claimed to want to open museums dedicated to sports and African-American history.
But prosecutors cited testimony by a former mayoral aide who told grand jurors that the buying sprees seemed to be “a personal release for Reed, a sort of private hobby that made him happy and allowed him to feel relaxed. … Reed developed a binge artifact buying ‘addiction’ that had a salutary effect on his mood” when he was depressed.
Reed’s administration later auctioned off some artifacts, but he also began to treat some of the artifacts as his own, Kane said. The attorney general’s office said thousands of items were found in a recent search of his office and home, many in poor condition because of improper storage.
“His home was literally cluttered with all these items,” Kane said.
Reed once tried to sell at least 20 city-owned firearms on consignment, prosecutors said.
Reed was defeated in the 2009 primary and left office in 2010 as Harrisburg was staggering toward bankruptcy.
The renovated incinerator was never able to produce enough revenue to repay the sums borrowed to overhaul it, and Harrisburg later became Pennsylvania’s first municipality to be taken over by the state.
Kane said investigators are looking into allegations of misconduct by others, and she expects more charges to be filed.