Dermody: Democrats on ethics committee will participate, be fair in evaluating colleagues
HARRISBURG — The House Democratic leader said on Monday he expects fellow Democrats on an ethics panel to fully participate and fairly weigh evidence against four colleagues accused of taking cash from an undercover informant for the Attorney General's Office.
“We have good, responsible people on the committee. They'll do their job,” said Rep. Frank Dermody, the minority leader from Oakmont. But he said rules that provide for secret House Ethics Committee investigations constrain him, even though the four Philadelphia Democratic lawmakers' names are public knowledge.
Informant Tyron B. Ali, a lobbyist, recorded the four legislators and a former traffic court judge, who took an expensive bracelet.
Unlike most committees with a tilt toward the party in power, the Ethics Committee is evenly balanced: four Republicans and four Democrats. Either party could block action against its members.
House Democrats didn't attend the first session in March.
Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County, the panel's chairman, said he could not discuss the case. The committee may vote whether to move to a formal investigation.
Dermody, a former Allegheny County prosecutor, said he believes evidence sought by the committee could hit hurdles if there's a criminal investigation.
“It's unlike most any other issue I've seen or dealt with,” Dermody said.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is reviewing evidence to decide whether to conduct a criminal investigation. He's doing so because Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who sent him the evidence, shut down the legislative sting last year amid concerns about its supervision under former attorneys general from 2010 to 2012. Kane took office in January 2013.
Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said leaders ask members on the committee to follow the facts presented.
The committee has subpoena power. Asked theoretically whether the committee could obtain evidence in a criminal proceeding, Petri said, “It depends on the facts, on the circumstances and who you're dealing with.”
The Wiretap Act prohibits disclosure, generally, except in criminal cases, Dermody said.
The committee can take no action or recommend sanctions, such as censure. The latter could result in a lawmaker's expulsion vote by the full House.
In recent decades, neither chamber has issued public discipline against a lawmaker, experts say.
The four legislators named — Reps. Ron Waters, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee and Louise Bishop — have declined to comment. They accepted a combined $16,500.
Because prosecutors botched the case, taxpayers are out the money, Kane has said.
Supporters of the sting investigation, several of whom work for Williams, have defended the investigation as a professional operation with proper controls.
Leaders from both parties pledged financial resources for an investigation. The committee may need to hire outside counsel, officials said.
Dermody said none of the lawmakers requested anything from the Democratic Caucus.
“I've talked to them, obviously,” Dermody said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.