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AG Kane approved deal dismissing informant's charges in sting

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 4:33 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Attorney General Kathleen Kane gave the final approval to an agreement dismissing 2,088 charges against a phony lobbyist working undercover and offering cash to state lawmakers, an agreement she denounced as the “deal of the century.”

On Wednesday, when her office acknowledged she signed the deal in October, Kane told the Tribune-Review that she did so because its approval effectively had taken place.

“It was a fully executable document,” she said.

Several lawmakers expressed concern about the case and the unfolding information, saying an independent investigation might be warranted.

Kane, a Clarks Summit Democrat, at a news conference last week blamed former lead prosecutor Frank Fina for the deal, saying he dismissed the charges against Tyron B. Ali of Philadelphia, a former day care center president whom prosecutors had charged with defrauding the Education Department.

Her office then called it “an extraordinarily forgiving cooperation agreement that absolved (the informant) of more than 2,000 separate charges.”

Fina declined to comment. He headed the anti-corruption unit under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, then the attorney general, and worked for two of Corbett's successors in the office. Fina joined the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office early last year.

Kane signed the agreement nine months after taking office. Acknowledging that does not contradict her earlier statements, she told the Trib.

The agreement could be revoked only “if (Ali) broke the terms,” she said. “By law, that was a fully, in effect, contract between them (Fina and Ali).”

Fina prepared and signed the agreement on Nov. 30, 2012, but made it contingent on Ali's testifying truthfully at any trial, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

A Republican legislator said he is looking into the possibility of legislation to appoint independent counsel to review the sting against lawmakers.

“We have to come up with a solution to get all of the facts on the table,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County. “It can't keep coming out in dribs and drabs.”

With state legislators accused of taking bribes, no one punished, and prosecutors firing at one another, Vereb likened the situation to an earthquake that “is the unraveling and shaking of the institution” of the General Assembly.

Key documents that might explain the case remain under seal in court, he said.

Kane did not intend to dismiss the case, a top aide said, but Ali's lawyer filed a motion in court demanding action on the agreement and she had no choice.

Neither Ali nor his attorney, Robert Levant of Philadelphia, could be reached for comment.

The dismissal of all charges hurt Ali's credibility as a witness, Kane has said.

At least one legal expert, Duquesne University Law School professor Wes Oliver, said Kane correctly had to dismiss the charges, because Ali “lived up to his half of the bargain.”

“He never declined to cooperate,” Oliver said.

Based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the charges had to be dismissed when Ali's lawyer demanded it. Asked if her signature was a technicality, Oliver said: “It sounds like it.”

University of Pittsburgh Law School professor John Burkoff generally agreed if those are the “only relevant facts.”

Prosecutors in 2009 accused Ali of a $430,000 fraud by submitting inflated billings to the Department of Education.

No one was charged in the legislative sting. At least four lawmakers took cash from Ali, who wore a recording device and posed as a lobbyist trying to influence legislation.

The Philadelphia Democrats who took money, according to the Inquirer: Rep. Ronald G. Waters, $7,650; Rep. Vanessa Brown, $4,000; Rep. Michelle Brownlee, $3,500; and Rep. Louise Bishop, $1,500. They have not returned the Trib's calls seeking comment.

Kane had cited the dismissal of the charges against Ali as one reason the case could not be prosecuted. She said three attorneys general did not file charges and the case had been dormant. Ali operated without adequate supervision and possibly targeted black lawmakers, she said.

A memo the Trib obtained last week showed Fina's long-term strategy was to establish a “business” office in Harrisburg so Ali could attempt to snare more lawmakers, nonprofit associations and lobbyists in a larger sting.

Because of the case, several lawmakers have proposed banning gifts and the House Ethics Committee might investigate.

Kane said her office provided information to the State Ethics Commission.

“I would say I am deeply troubled by events over the past two weeks,” said Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Carlisle, one of the “relatively small group of legislators” who co-sponsored an impeachment resolution against Kane for not defending the state's ban on gay marriage.

Kane's explanations about the payoff case “just add to the concerns I've had,” Bloom said. He supports the general notion of an independent investigation.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Philadelphia district attorney, defended Kane's halting the investigation. But in a letter to newspapers he said lawmakers on tape accepting cash should face censure and possible expulsion.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405.

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