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Philadelphia DA says no conflict of interest in legislative sting case

| Thursday, April 24, 2014, 2:22 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Pressing for a case file, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said on Thursday he has no conflict of interest that would prevent him from reviewing an abandoned legislative sting case and possibly prosecuting.

Williams suggested that Attorney General Kathleen Kane raised the issue of his potential conflict as an excuse not to send him the file she promised two weeks ago.

“(Kane) doesn't really believe I have a conflict, or she wouldn't have repeatedly suggested I take over this case,” Williams said. He expects to respond by letter to Kane immediately.

Kane's office told Williams he couldn't have the file until he resolved a potential conflict — that two of four House members who took cash from an undercover informant in the 2010-12 sting investigation had endorsed Williams for district attorney in 2009.

But, Williams pointed out, the same Philadelphia Democrats — Reps. Ron Waters and Vanessa Brown — endorsed Kane for attorney general in 2012.

Kane is prosecuting a state representative who gave her $1,000 in September 2012. Kane in March charged LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, with using her state staffers to do campaign work. Kane spokesman J.J. Abbott, asked whether Kane has a conflict similar to the one she raised with Williams, said, “We determined there wasn't a conflict and filed appropriate charges as recommended by a grand jury.”

Endorsements alone don't matter as much as the extent of support and its influence, said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

“If someone raises several million dollars, just hypothetically, that's different than a supporter who cut them a $25 check and voted for him,” Long said.

“Were hundreds of people endorsing this candidate?” Long said.

About 60 organizations and individuals endorsed Williams' campaign, including clergy, unions, neighborhood groups, police, 12 former assistant district attorneys and a sitting U.S. senator and congressman.

Waters and Brown were among 15 state representatives and senators who backed his campaign. The Committee to Elect Ron Waters donated $300 to Williams' campaign in December 2008, according to Philadelphia campaign finance records.

Lambasted for dismissing the sting case, and denounced by Williams for criticizing the former state prosecutors who handled it, Kane this month told Williams in a letter that he could have the case if he wanted it. Two former prosecutors and an ex-agent from the Attorney General's Office ran the sting for former attorneys general.

Kane claimed one reason she dumped the case was that the informant, Tyron B. Ali, appeared to target black lawmakers.

Pennsylvania's first black district attorney, Williams strongly objected to the idea race factored into the case.

A letter Kane wrote Williams on Wednesday led to their latest exchange about conflict of interest.

Analysts find it unusual that two top Democratic prosecutors would feud.

“It has been two weeks to the day that Ms. Kane requested that I take this case, and I find it odd that in all of this time she has never mentioned this so-called ‘conflict of interest,' ” Williams said.

He reiterated that he would review the case for possible charges if he gets the file.

Prosecutors enlisted Ali, who was charged with defrauding the state Education Department, to approach public officials as a lobbyist in an investigation that began under former Attorney General Tom Corbett, now the state's governor, and his Republican successors. Kane dismissed 2,088 charges against Ali last year, under an agreement reached two months before she took office.

Ali recorded his encounters with officials, including Democratic Reps. Michelle Brownlee and Louise Bishop of Philadelphia.

Brad Bumsted and Mike Wereschagin are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com and Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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