Philadelphia grand jury investigates sting involving lawmakers, ex-judge
PHILADELPHIA — A grand jury is investigating Philadelphia officials who allegedly took cash and jewelry from an undercover informant, District Attorney Seth Williams said on Wednesday, a case that Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined to prosecute despite videotapes of the encounters.
At a news conference, Williams said he took the “unusual step” of revealing the secret grand jury investigation because of the high level of public interest in the so-called legislative sting case, but he vowed to release no more information until the jury issues its recommendation.
“It’s important for the public to understand I will not just let this case disappear,” Williams said. “If crimes occurred here of this nature, of this magnitude, we can’t stick our heads in the sand.”
The public officials who allegedly took cash deserve due process as well, Williams said.
J.J. Abbott, a Kane spokesman, declined to comment.
Williams said the investigation is “more expansive” than four Democratic lawmakers and an ex-traffic court judge whose names became public in March. He declined to say how many people may be involved.
His decision to take the case to a grand jury does not necessarily mean he will prosecute, he said. The 36 Philadelphia grand jurors could recommend criminal charges, a public report, or not to prosecute.
Critics say grand juries often do what prosecutors want.
The four lawmakers who allegedly took more than $16,000 combined from informant Tyron Ali are Reps. Ron Waters, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee and Louise Bishop. In some cases, they allegedly discussed legislation.
None of the four returned messages personally delivered to their Harrisburg offices on Wednesday.
Thomasine Tynes, an ex-traffic court judge, allegedly accepted a $2,000 bracelet. The Tribune-Review could not reach Tynes.
Williams announced his investigation three months after Kane acknowledged that she dismissed a state investigation last year because she considered it legally flawed. After several weeks of feuding between the two powerful Democratic prosecutors, Kane turned the case over to Williams.
The Pennsylvania State Police will assist with the investigation at Williams’ request, spokeswoman Maria Finn said. That effectively gives Williams resources throughout the state.
He expects the investigation to take months, not years. He said he reviewed videotapes recorded by Ali. Asked whether they are convincing, Williams said: “They are.”
House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton said House leaders “will respect the grand jury process and provide any information requested.”
“It seems like something that should happen,” Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, said of the investigation. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but the evidence seems like enough for an investigation or prosecution.”
Kane claimed the case was flawed in part because prosecutors might have targeted black lawmakers.
Williams, the state’s first black district attorney, said he saw no evidence of racism.
Kane said Ali, whom state prosecutors had charged with fraud, got the “deal of the century” when more than 2,000 criminal charges against him were dismissed.
She later acknowledged she dismissed the charges based on a motion by Ali’s lawyer. Former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina, who works for Williams, arranged the cooperation agreement for Ali before leaving the Attorney General’s Office.
Kane objected to prosecuting the Philadelphia officials because she contends there was no evidence anyone agreed to take official action in return for a gift.
The objections that Kane raised “may be fodder for defense attorneys at some point” if criminal charges come about, Williams said.
The abandoned sting rocked state politics, prompting a cash gift ban by House leaders and the first serious consideration by the Legislature in recent history of a ban on all gifts for public officials.
The fallout caused some political damage to Kane, analysts say, as she prepares to release a long-awaited report on why Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the former attorney general, took almost three years to investigate serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State University assistant football coach convicted of child molestation in 2012.
Corbett, a Shaler Republican, is running for re-election in November.
The sting case began under Corbett when he was attorney general and continued through the tenure of his appointed successor Linda Kelly.
“I concluded the evidence was worth another look,” said Williams, who put new prosecutors in charge of the case.
The House ethics committee in April began an investigation that could result in expulsion for the legislators, who maintain their innocence. Williams said he hopes the Legislature will allow the grand jury process to occur.
Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County, the ethics chairman, could not be reached.
If there is a House investigation, it could move on an “independent track” with what Williams does, a House GOP spokesman said. House members and staffers are not allowed to acknowledge ethics investigations.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected]. Gideon Bradshaw, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, contributed to this report.