Philadelphia legislator, former lawmaker plead guilty in bribery scandal
HARRISBURG — A state lawmaker and an ex-representative, both Philadelphia Democrats, pleaded guilty Monday to criminal charges stemming from a bribery scandal and received probation. A third legislator withdrew her plea.
Rep. Ronald Waters, 65, in office since 1999, resigned immediately. Initially charged with bribery, he pleaded guilty to nine counts of conflict of interest.
“I got caught up. I don’t know where my mind was,” Waters said in an apology to the court.
Dauphin County Judge Scott Evans said he didn’t “see it as corruption, to the degree of organized crime infiltration.” The judge called it “poor use of judgment.”
He sentenced Waters to 23 months’ probation and ordered him to pay $8,750 in restitution, $5,000 in court costs and a $200 fine for accepting $8,750 from undercover informant Tyron Ali. In their meetings, Waters agreed to act on liquor privatization, with the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and to vote against the voter ID bill, prosecutors said.
Former Rep. Harold James, 72, pleaded guilty to one count of conflict of interest and received 12 months of probation. A former police officer, he admitted taking $750 as a campaign contribution. He must pay $750 in restitution, costs of $5,000 and a $100 fine.
James also admitted to the grand jury he would have taken official action, if asked, to help the would-be lobbyist working as an informant in an elaborate sting.
James’ lawyer, W. Chris Montoya, told reporters his client’s crime stemmed from being “honest.”
“It was the intent,” Montoya said.
The pleas do not automatically mean James and Waters will lose their state pensions, said Deputy District Attorney Mark Gilson of Philadelphia.
“We’re satisfied with the outcome,” Gilson said. “That sentence was totally up to Judge Evans.”
Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, withdrew a signed plea agreement when she appeared for court, prosecutors said. She returns to court June 13.
Brown, 48, admitted to the grand jury that she took money from Ali, prosecutors said, accepting five payments totaling $4,000.
“It’s a little problematic” in light of her grand jury statement, Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Brad Bender said of Brown’s plea withdrawal.
The cases were heard in Dauphin County because crimes occurred in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who referred the cases to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, had declared them “dead on arrival,” Gilson said after the hearing.
Kane claimed “racial targeting” tainted the case, though the grand jury found no evidence of racism.
Kane “stands by her decision not to prosecute the African-American legislators,” said her spokesman, Chuck Ardo.
Ali posed as a lobbyist for fictitious companies. Wearing a recording device, he taped nearly 400 hours of the bribe exchanges, documents show.
Ali cooperated with state prosecutors because he faced 2,088 criminal charges alleging he defrauded the Department of Education when he operated a day-care center in Philadelphia. Charges against him were dropped.
Two other Philadelphia Democrats are charged in the case, Reps. Michelle Brownlee and Louise Bishop. Brownlee is accused of accepting $3,500; Bishop, $1,500.
Bishop, 81, is expected to fight the charges in court Friday. Her attorney, Charles Peruto, said he subpoenaed five prosecutors, including Williams and Assistant District Attorney Frank Fina, who headed the sting investigation when chief deputy attorney general, and two of Kane’s staffers.
Peruto said he will prove there was racial targeting, calling Kane’s statements “100 percent accurate.”
“It’s frivolous and baseless,” Gilson said of Peruto’s claim.
Brownlee, 59, is scheduled to appear in court Monday.
Madison Russ, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association, contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.