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House leaders promise ethics committee resources to investigate failed sting

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 3:39 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG — House leaders from both political parties on Wednesday assured leaders of the House ethics committee that the panel would have “sufficient resources” if it decides to investigate allegations that Philadelphia lawmakers took payoffs from a supposed lobbyist.

A letter from House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney; House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods; and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, doesn't tell the committee to proceed with an investigation.

The House committee conducts confidential ethics investigations. None in recent history has resulted in public censure.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane scrubbed a criminal investigation and suggested the matter go to the state ethics commission. She said a years-old investigation that involved targeting and recording certain lawmakers was flawed, and they could not be prosecuted for bribery.

“I believe that we have evidence that certain legislators were taking money, and that's a crime,” Kane said on Monday.

The matter became public on Sunday through a Philadelphia Inquirer article.

The letter from House leaders doesn't specify the resources that would aid a committee investigation, but that's expected to include hiring an outside law firm.

The House Ethics panel is chaired by Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County; the ranking Democrat and vice chairman is Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Corao-polis.

“Questions have been raised about a number of our colleagues this week, due to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer concerning their interaction with a lobbyist. While none of the four have been charged with a crime, concerns exist about actions they are alleged to have taken,” the House leaders wrote.

The House has the power under the state constitution to expel a member by a two-thirds vote.

As many as eight legislators may have been recorded in the sting operation run by the attorney general's office, according to Kane. The Inquirer reported four lawmakers agreed on audiotape to take cash, and a traffic court judge accepted a $2,000 bracelet. The confidential informant wore a wire.

Kane on Monday defended her decision to shut down the investigation, saying top deputies didn't know about it and that the sting was legally flawed. It may have targeted Black Caucus members, she said, noting that three of her predecessors — including now Gov. Tom Corbett — did not file charges.

The informant “got the deal of the century” when prosecutors dismissed more than 2,000 criminal charges before she took office, Kane said.

Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp this week asked the House ethics committee to formally vote and file a formal complaint with the state ethics commission. Stilp has filed an complaint with the ethics commission.

Eric Filman, a lawyer for the House committee, said a member of the public can file a complaint. It's not clear whether Stilp's complaint would be acted on, or whether there are other complaints. The proceedings are confidential.

Kotik this week said he could not comment.

“I would urge the House ethics committee to follow the trail, wherever it leads, and to make that part of their authorization resolution for this investigation,” Stilp said. “It's time for the House Ethics Committee to actually do something. They have no meetings. (They've) had no votes. They have no proposed legislation.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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