Pa. lawmaker tells how he declined bizarre cash offer made in Rotunda
HARRISBURG — In a darkened hallway above the Capitol Rotunda, a lobbyist pulled out an envelope containing $1,000 and offered it to a stunned Rep. Angel Cruz.
Turns out the lobbyist whose advances he refused was phony, Cruz later learned: Philadelphian Tyron B. Ali, a native of Trinidad, was wearing a wire and working undercover for the Attorney General's Office while lobbying in 2010 on behalf of a fictitious West Indian group that opposed a voter ID law.
Cruz, like nearly all House Democrats, planned to vote against the bill anyway. He'd talked with Ali before, but he said he never accepts cash.
“It was the first and hopefully the last time” anyone offers money, Cruz said.
Cruz, of Philadelphia, talked with the Tribune-Review outside his office, not far from where the bizarre encounter took place, as the House ethics committee took testimony from a former state prosecutor about four Philadelphia lawmakers who allegedly accepted cash payoffs.
Frank Fina, former chief deputy attorney general, ran the nearly three-year sting operation that fell by the wayside when Attorney General Kathleen Kane became the first Democrat to assume the office in January 2013.
Kane gave final approval to dismiss 2,088 criminal charges against Ali, which prosecutors had used as leverage to secure his cooperation. Kane contends that Fina effectively approved the dismissal weeks before she took over.
The GOP-controlled Legislature eventually sent the voter ID bill to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed it. A court challenge to the law is pending.
Ali's attorney, Robert Levant, declined to comment.
Cruz and at least one other lawmaker targeted in the sting stand in contrast to lawmakers charged with corruption in recent years. Eleven of 15 lawmakers accused of crimes since 2007 have been convicted.
“What's lost in the (news) coverage is you had some members who acted appropriately, and we should focus on them as well as others,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin County, co-chairman of a Senate-House reform caucus.
“I think it's commendable what he did,” Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant Township, said of Cruz. “I think it showed leadership.”
Rep. Rosita Youngblood, D-Philadelphia, said Ali attended her 2011 fundraiser at Finnegan's Wake in her hometown. He gave her a $400 check — asked for nothing in return — and she reported the monetary gift to the state elections bureau. Youngblood asked an aide to write Ali a receipt for the money.
“I just didn't like him,” Youngblood said. “It was his whole demeanor.”
Unlike other instances, Ali apparently didn't record their encounter.
It appears to be one example of Ali's attempts to gain acceptance, to be seen at legislative events without offering cash.
The Philadelphia Inquirer last month reported four Democrats accepted cash: Rep. Ronald Waters, $7,650; Rep. Vanessa Brown, $4,000; Rep. Louise Bishop, $1,500; and Rep. Michelle Brownlee, $3,500. They reported no cash gifts on financial disclosure forms, records show, and repeatedly have declined to comment to the Trib.
“It's good that some people refused (Ali's) advances,” said Harrisburg activist Gene Stilp, who filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee and state Ethics Commission. “Let's hope more of these cases come to light, where people did the right thing.”
Pennsylvania law allows elected officials to accept gifts of $250 or less without disclosing them. A legislator could take a $1,000 or more gift, if there were no quid pro quo, and report it to the Ethics Commission.
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