Former top aide to Rendell gets probation in pay-to-play probe

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HARRISBURG – John H. Estey – a former top aide to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell whose role as an FBI cooperator fueled a probe of the capital’s pay-to-play culture – was sentenced to one year of probation Thursday for wire fraud.

In a hearing before U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, Estey, 54, of Ardmore, apologized for the crime that had brought him to court: pocketing $13,000 given to him in 2011 to make campaign contributions on behalf of a phony company set up by undercover investigators running an elaborate corruption sting in Harrisburg.

As soon as agents confronted him a year later, Estey came clean and provided assistance that helped investigations of other top targets, including former state Treasurer Rob McCord.

“I lost my way,” he told the court. “I lost sight of the legal and ethical underpinnings that underscore a life in public service and descended into moral relativism

Jones, noting that he expected some would misunderstand his sentence, credited Estey’s cooperation and the own acknowledgement of his guilt in the five years since.

“There’s nothing good to be accomplished by a term of imprisonment,” he said. “It makes utterly no sense. This is both a sentencing and a pep talk. It’s time to turn the page.”

The full extent and impact of Estey’s cooperation remains hazy and was only obliquely referenced in court Thursday.

But sources familiar with Estey’s role have likened him to the first domino to fall in a chain reaction that led to other indictments.

Surreptitious recordings he made in 2014 of McCord shaking down business owners for campaign donations led to the treasurer’s guilty plea to charges of attempted extortion a year later and McCord’s own decision to become a secret government cooperator.

Sources familiar with Estey’s role in the wider probe have said that he also let agents record his conversations with contacts in Pennsylvania’s political, legal, charitable and business communities.

As Rendell’s former chief of staff in Harrisburg and, before that, one of his top mayoral aides, Estey had spent two decades cultivating an extensive Rolodex. He worked in or with multiple white-shoe law firms, and at various points, also served as chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, the Independence Visitor Center and as a top official at the Hershey Trust Co.

Before sentencing, several longtime Estey contacts submitted letters to the court vouching for his character and asking the judge to be lenient.

They included former Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato, chairmen and presidents from Visit Philadelphia and the Independence Visitor Center, several Rendell-era aides and cabinet officials and the former governor himself. Rendell was not in the courtroom Thursday. 

“I saw this hard-driving, effective leader go out of his way to help people who were in need,” he wrote in his letter to the judge. “He gave his heart, soul and total energy to serving me but he never forgot that both he and I served the people.”

Estey left Rendell’s administration in 2008, began working at the Ballard Spahr firm as a lawyer, and lobbyist and within a year had begun representing the executives at a Florida-based textbook recycling company that would lead to the unraveling of his career.

Unbeknownst to him, the men were undercover FBI agents. Prosecutors laid out the scheme they devised to to ensnare him in court filings last year.

The investigators set up their phony business – Textbook Bio-Solutions, based in a Fort Lauderdale strip mall  — in 2009 and hired Estey, as well as a top Harrisburg lobbying firm, to make campaign contributions to help them get legislation passed to benefit the business.

They purported to want to buy books from public schools to give to “impoverished nations” or to recycle them into pellet fuel as an alternative heating source and Estey concocted a plan to ensure legislation was introduced to help them.

The agents gave him $20,000 to pass along as campaign contributions to various state lawmakers in his name, circumventing state laws that ban corporate gifts and the use of lobbyists as “pass-throughs.”

Estey kept two-thirds of that money for himself. Prosecutors have not disclosed which lawmakers received shares of the remaining $7,000.

But around the same time, a bill was introduced that would have required schools to send unwanted textbooks to licensed recycling centers. It passed the Senate unanimously, but never got a vote in the House. It was reintroduced and died again in 2011.

Estey described his role in the incident Thursday.

“I have no excuse to offer the court today,” he told the judge. “I knew what I did was wrong and I did it.


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