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State sting eyed lobbyists, Philadelphia lawmakers

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
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Tyron B. Ali, a former Philadelphia day-care president, became an informant posing as a lobbyist in a sting on Pennsylvania lawmakers.

HARRISBURG — A prosecutor's internal memo detailed how an Abscam-type sting operation with Philadelphia lawmakers was proceeding and asked for permission to expand the investigation to Harrisburg by setting up a fictitious business with offices and staff, the Tribune-Review has learned.

The long-term plan aimed to uncover whether taxpayer money went to nonprofits for illegal use and to examine relationships “between legislators and certain lobbyists,” according to the July 26, 2012, memo from ex-Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina to former Attorney General Linda Kelly.

The investigation is at the center of a dispute arising from Attorney General Kathleen Kane's decision not to prosecute lawmakers who took $20,000 in the sting. Kane called the case legally flawed and noted that most undercover recordings of lawmakers were made 18 months before she took office in 2013. The taxpayer money is gone, she said.

Fina, reached at his office in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, declined to comment. Kelly, an Edgewood lawyer who was appointed attorney general in 2011, could not be reached.

Abscam, begun in the late 1970s, was an FBI sting operation that recorded members of Congress taking cash from a phony sheik.

Fina's memo said an informant, Tyrone B. Ali, paid Philadelphia lawmakers “in an undercover fashion, in exchange for favors or future favors.” The Attorney General's Office wired Ali, and he posed as a lobbyist.

A former day care center president, Ali had been charged with more than 2,000 criminal counts in 2009, accused of a $400,000 fraud for submitting inflated billings to the Department of Education.

Neither Ali nor his lawyer, Robert Levant, could be reached.

Adrian King, Kane's first deputy, said Fina's memo “appears to have been improperly taken from the office, and we only obtained a copy by searching a database of more than 20 million deleted emails that were recently recovered. The memo was not in the official case file. The options discussed in the memo were never acted upon in 2012, which further supports our conclusion the case had been abandoned.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that four legislators took cash payments and a traffic court judge took a $2,000 bracelet in the sting.

Expanding Ali's activities from Philadelphia to Harrisburg would mean “more aggressive operations into the legislative and lobbying communities,” Fina wrote. His memo read, “Manpower, security and financial concerns (had) prevented taking that next step.”

Rick Sheetz, former head of the criminal division, recalled seeing the memo and termed the investigation “by the book.” Sheetz said former Attorneys General Tom Corbett and Bill Ryan, the acting attorney general when Corbett became governor in 2011, knew about the investigation, as did Kelly, Corbett's appointee.

Ryan could not be reached.

Corbett “left at the beginning ... when this investigation began,” said his spokesman, Jay Pagni.

No one could say whether Kelly responded to the memo.

Weeks before she took office, Kane said Ali got the “deal of the century” when prosecutors dropped all charges against him. She said it appeared prosecutors targeted black lawmakers in the sting.

“Absolutely not,” Sheetz, who is retired, said about racial targeting.

Fina's memo went to Kelly, Sheetz and William Conley, then first deputy, who could not be reached. It did not go to Kelly's chief of staff, Bruce Beemer, a former Allegheny County deputy district attorney, who Kane said on Monday was unaware of the investigation. Beemer could not be reached.

State House leaders this week pledged resources for an Ethics Committee investigation of legislators accepting payments. Calling it “Bribegate,” Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp on Thursday asked the U.S. Attorney in central Pennsylvania and the Justice Department to investigate.

The memo said the investigation began in October 2010, a month before Corbett was elected governor. Investigators amassed 30 recordings through the end of 2010, Kane's office said, 49 under Ryan and 21 under Kelly.

“Secrecy has been, and remains, one of the foremost issues and concerns in this matter,” Fina wrote. “One of the primary suspects in this case has significant links to violent elements within the black Muslim community.”

In the fall and winter of 2011, Ali's safety became a concern, the memo said, noting that he was viewed “suspiciously by several members of the political and lobbying community.” As a result, a “more conservative and aloof” approach was taken.

“To date, most of the criminality uncovered involves ‘Abscam'-type actions, wherein legislators have accepted cash payments from our (confidential informant),” Fina wrote.

His memo suggested options for Kelly:

• Continue the investigation with increased financial resources and manpower;

• Charge select legislators who took cash;

• Confront certain suspects about the cash payments to try and obtain their cooperation.

“The case is currently ripe for a decision on how to proceed,” Fina wrote.

Fina was a key prosecutor in Democratic and Republican legislative corruption cases pursued under Corbett and Kelly that resulted in 23 convictions. He was one of two attorneys who tried Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach convicted of 45 counts of child molestation in 2012.

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

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