Judge agrees to unseal court case in failed sting against Pa. lawmakers
HARRISBURG — At least 12 legislators, lobbyists and a former traffic court judge took cash or meals and drinks from an undercover informant who typically wore a wire, secret court documents unsealed on Thursday reveal.
One person accepted jewelry, and another, theater tickets, according to a document filed by the informant's lawyer.
The document is among dozens made public by Dauphin County President Judge Todd Hoover at the Tribune-Review's request. The case record raises more questions about who might have been ensnared by a failed legislative sting operation involving the state's former informant, Tyron B. Ali.
Four Philadelphia Democratic legislators and an ex-traffic court judge have been publicly identified as taking cash. The document from Robert Levant, Ali's attorney, identifies seven transactions with legislators involving mostly cash, meals and beverages as “bribes,” and in one instance, baseball tickets. The events took place from 2010 through 2012.
Ali and his attorney declined comment.
The files show Levant argued that Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, should not have decided whether to drop charges against his client because she had an apparent conflict, involving a former campaign employee and a Philadelphia candidate who had contact with Ali.
But Kane, who dismissed the case last year and hailed its unsealing, maintained: “It's not that we killed it. This case was dead.”
She said her deputies “tried to revive it” when she took office in January 2013 because they find public corruption “disgusting,” but a deputy found it had stagnated for more than a year. She repeated claims that investigators with earlier administrations targeted black lawmakers with no apparent history of accepting bribes, an approach she said poisoned the investigation.
Although she repeatedly has said the case was long dormant, in an October motion, Kane's office argued that making the documents public meant “criminal investigations would be prematurely exposed and their continued viability seriously threatened.”
Asked to explain the apparent contradiction, First Deputy Adrian King said the document doesn't refer to the sting but rather to some federal investigations in which Ali apparently was an informant based on the transcript of a teleconference among lawyers last month.
In that transcript, Levant said the FBI agents “have long known my client and have had extensive dealings with him.”
Levant, arguing against unsealing documents because of a potential threat against Ali, said the FBI had “extensive dealings” with Ali. But since then, Ali has received extensive news coverage statewide, and Levant agreed to the Trib's motion to open records.
A black agent now working for the Philadelphia district attorney strongly denied the investigation targeted blacks, as Kane has suggested.
“No one ever asked me, suggested or ordered me to target African-Americans,” said former agent Claude Thomas. “No one who knows me would have, based on my 20-year career in the attorney general's office.”
Responding to a motion filed by the Trib, Hoover unsealed court documents in the high-profile case against Ali, whom the office had accused of fraud in 2009. The file shows that former Chief Deputy Frank Fina took the case to the U.S. Attorney's Office before Kane's inauguration.
In a January 2013 memo, Fina stated that “federal authorities are desirous of taking a more active role in the management of this (confidential informant).”
“There is a great deal of real public interest in this case, and for good reason. I am very pleased that the court acted quickly, heard us carefully and ruled appropriately,” said attorney Ron Barber with the Downtown Pittsburgh law firm of Strassburger Mc-Kenna Gutnick & Gefsky, who represented the Trib.
Prosecutors never charged the four Philadelphia House members: Reps. Ron Waters, Louise Bishop, Vanessa Brown and Michelle Brownlee. Prosecutors used the fraud case against Ali as leverage to garner his cooperation in the sting. Wearing a wire, he approached public officials as a lobbyist.
Kane last year dismissed 2,088 charges against Ali.
The failed sting has upended state politics. The House and Senate moved to ban gifts, and the House ethics committee is investigating the legislators. A citizen activist filed private criminal charges against three of them.
“I am gratified by today's ruling,” Kane said. “The Office of Attorney General filed a motion to unseal the court pleadings even before the investigation was made public, but was legally prohibited from revealing my efforts to open these records.”
Kane has said crimes occurred, but she could not pursue the case because it was flawed, poorly supervised and racially motivated — accusations disputed by sources involved in the sting and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
Williams is now boss of several former state prosecutors, including Fina. Williams has said Kane took back the case only to kill it, an assertion that she denies. Fina has said the investigation was handled “honestly, ably and with integrity.”
But Kane maintains the plea deal Fina negotiated was extraordinarily lenient and undermined Ali's credibility, making the case virtually impossible to prosecute.
The case began under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett as attorney general and continued under his successors, Bill Ryan and Linda Kelly.
Kane's office this week said the sting operation cost taxpayers more than $91,000 for lodging, clothes, cigars, booze and about $22,000 in “payments to suspects.” A review found $32,000 in expenses without receipts and that “raised new questions about management of the case,” spokesman J.J. Abbott said.
Thomas, the agent supervising the case, took strong exception to Kane's characterization of the expenses.
“This was a lengthy investigation of corruption at the highest levels of government, and it would have gone even further if it hadn't been shut down,” he told the Trib. “The total cost, spread over three years, was minimal compared to many other undercover operations,” noting that narcotics operations can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“In the end, there's just no arguing with the evidence,” Thomas said. “We caught officeholders red-handed taking money. I am proud of my work on this case.”
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