Legislative sting's scope in Pennsylvania broad, diverse

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 9:44 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — A legislative sting operation was much broader than originally described, and the undercover informant who recorded many conversations reached out to a racially diverse group of Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, lobbyists and city officials, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Tyron B. Ali's activities as an informant for the attorney general from 2010-12 ranged from conversations, fundraising events and lavish meals to gifts and cash — part of a plan to boost the former lobbyist's influence in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Some contacts, such as Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, turned him down.

The aim of the investigation was not to snare legislators, sources said. It was to develop relationships and focus on discretionary state grants and nonprofits. The sources said even the lawmakers who took cash were not targets.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, the first Democrat elected to the office, stands by her previous remarks on why she shut down what she considered to be a legally flawed probe. One of the reasons she cited was potential racial profiling.

Ali dealt with 25 black officials, 23 Caucasians and three Latinos, said the sources, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. Of the 51 people with whom Ali dealt, there were 27 House members, five senators, 11 lobbyists and eight Philadelphia city officials. The group included 39 Democrats, seven Republicans and five for whom party affiliation was not available.

The names of Ali's contacts were not provided. He took video and audio recordings.

“This does not change the fact, as we have said time and again, that in the actual evidence left by outgoing prosecutors, 95 percent of the targets recorded were African-Americans,” Kane's spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said Wednesday.

Kane last year halted the investigation that began under Tom Corbett, then the top state prosecutor, and continued under Linda Kelly, who was appointed Corbett's successor when he became governor.

Kane also cited a lack of appropriate supervision, no link to official actions while officials took money and a probe that was dormant before she took office in January 2013.

The attorney general said of 113 recording sessions, 108 recordings, or 95.5 percent, were black “targets.” And Kane said 103 of the recordings were made 18 months before she took office and in the last nine months before she became attorney general.

The lawmakers were asked to vote certain ways on bills, including the voter ID law and liquor reform, the sources said, though a “quid pro quo” in taking money is not necessary to constitute a crime.

Revelation of the sting last month caused an uproar in state politics, including a flurry of bills for gift bans, calls for an independent counsel and a House Ethics probe for the four legislators, who repeatedly have declined to comment: Reps. Ron Waters, Vanessa Brown, Louise Bishops and Michelle Brownlee.

The four Philadelphia Democrats took cash, and a former judge took jewelry, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The ex-judge was Thomasine Tynes, former president judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court, who acknowledged taking a $2,000 bracelet, the newspaper reported.

Kane said eight people took cash that totaled $22,000. She did not identify others who took cash.

Court documents released last week in response to a Tribune-Review motion revealed that at least 12 legislators, lobbyists and the judge took cash, meals and sporting tickets or gifts.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he will consider prosecuting the case, but he has not received evidence, files and emails he requested from Kane last week. The veteran prosecutors who worked the Ali case for the Attorney General's Office now work for Williams.

Williams, a Democrat, objects to Kane's suggesting his prosecutors are racist and incompetent, which he flatly denies.

Former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina led the successful public corruption investigation of Democratic and Republican legislators in which prosecutors won 23 of 26 cases. He was a key prosecutor in the conviction of serial child predator Jerry Sandusky, who is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence.

Ali was charged in 2009 with 2,088 counts for defrauding the state of $430,000 for a day care center he operated. Fina in November 2012 signed an agreement to dismiss the charges once Ali completed work as an informant and witness. Since no officials were charged, he had no obligations as a witness.

Kane dismissed the charges against him last year.

Friction between Fina and Kane stems in part from the Sandusky investigation. Kane won statewide office in 2012 while promising an investigation of why it took so long for Corbett to arrest Sandusky. That investigation took almost three years, in large part, Corbett said, because he used a grand jury to unravel an alleged cover-up. Kane promised a report more than a year in the making.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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