Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s federal pay-to-play trial pits seasoned prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s anti-corruption unit against one of the region’s best-known criminal defense attorneys after jury selection is completed this week.
The courtroom drama will unfold before U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez, who climbed from a humble background to a post as a respected member of Eastern Pennsylvania’s federal bench.
Prosecuting the case are Anthony Wzorek and Michelle Morgan, assistant U.S. attorneys with decades of experience handling the toughest cases in the federal justice system.
On Pawlowski’s side is Jack McMahon, a former prosecutor turned passionate defense attorney who’s handled criminal cases ranging from tax fraud to grisly murders.
Also at the defense table, representing Allentown lawyer Scott Allinson, Pawlowski’s co-defendant, will be William Winning and Megan Scheib, attorneys from the Philadelphia law firm Cozen O’Connor and specialists in white-collar crime.
Sanchez ascended to the federal judiciary via what U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, during Sanchez’s 2004 swearing-in ceremony, called “a great Horatio Alger success story.”
Since his nomination by President George W. Bush, Sanchez has earned a reputation as a tough judge who runs a tight courtroom where those accused of wrongdoing will get fair trials, a longtime colleague said.
A native of Puerto Rico, Sanchez moved with his mother and siblings to the Bronx, N.Y., when he was 13 and attended high school in one of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods. He went on to graduate from City University of New York and University of Pennsylvania Law School.
As a young lawyer, Sanchez provided legal aid to migrant farm workers and worked in the Chester County public defender’s office until being elected to a county judge seat in 1997. He later became the first Hispanic judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and one of only five Hispanic federal judges in the nation.
West Chester attorney Samuel Stretton, who worked alongside Sanchez and appeared in his courtrooms, said Sanchez’s stern demeanor is a result of his reverence for the legal profession and judiciary.
“He has a high expectation of lawyers. He knows what a great privilege it is to be a lawyer,” Stretton said. “He expects people to do the right thing and if they don’t he’ll take a very tough position.”
Sanchez presided over several other cases centered in the Lehigh Valley, including the 2007 civil lawsuit by the widow of Easton police officer Jesse Sollman, who was accidentally shot by a colleague, that resulted in the city paying a $5 million settlement.
Sanchez was the judge in a whistleblower lawsuit in which former Allentown Managing Director Francis Dougherty, who will testify against Pawlowski, sued the Philadelphia school district after he was fired from an administrative job there after disclosing details of a $7.5 million no-bid security camera contract.
Wzorek, an assistant U.S. attorney, has prosecuted corrupt police officers and judges in Philadelphia, insurance scammers and drug dealers. After working as a homicide prosecutor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office for 15 years, Wzorek joined the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1995.
“He’s not afraid to try a difficult case,” said Philadelphia attorney Michael Diamondstein, who defended one of six members of the Philadelphia police department’s elite narcotics unit who were accused of robbing suspected drug dealers. Wzorek was the prosecutor.
That case ended with the acquittal of all six officers, but a seventh who testified against his former colleagues after being arrested in an FBI sting was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison.
Wzorek was successful in sending four former Philadelphia traffic court judges to federal prison in a case that exposed the city’s politics of gift-giving for official favors and led to the court’s abolishment by state legislators. Defense attorney William J. Brennan described Wzorek as a confident veteran prosecutor.
“What I respect most about Tony is he’ll just suit up and try the case,” Brennan said. “Some people will agonize. He just gets the file, walks into the courtroom and tries the case.”
Wzorek is joined by Morgan, also an assistant U.S. attorney. Morgan, a prosecutor for the Justice Department for more than 15 years, spent the last decade in the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia. There she has specialized in human trafficking and corruption cases, which Brennan described as some of the toughest in the federal justice system.
“They really are as good as it gets,” Brennan said of the team.
McMahon brings a deep knowledge of the law plus emotion and drama to the courtroom, said Seth Weber, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal justice at DeSales University.
“When Jack McMahon goes into a courtroom, it is not just a job, it’s not just a case, it’s a crusade for him,” Weber said.
McMahon has been in private practice nearly 30 years. Before that, he was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia for 12 years, serving in the office’s homicide division.
That experience led to a controversy nearly a decade after he left the office, when an opponent in his campaign for district attorney revealed a training videotape in which McMahon advised green prosecutors not to select blacks from poor areas to serve on juries because he said they were less likely to convict. McMahon said at the time his comments had been taken out of context.
Although the tape resurfaces periodically, it has not stopped McMahon from having a successful career.
McMahon quarterbacked the defense team that won the acquittal for the six Philadelphia narcotics agents tried for corruption, said Brennan.
In Northampton County, McMahon represented Gregory R. Graf, an Allen Township man convicted in 2015 of killing his step-daughter and videotaping himself having sex with her corpse. He also represented Rene Figueroa, convicted in 2014 of involuntary manslaughter for a fatal shootout in front of a Bethlehem nightclub. Figueroa avoided the death penalty.
“I think when he takes a case and agrees to bring it to trial he believes in the defendant,” Weber said of McMahon’s record of taking tough cases. “He believes in the system, he believes in the facts and the law and he brings that home for the jury.”