Records reveal could unravel ‘naked corruption’ scandal
HARRISBURG — A Dauphin County judge could unseal court documents this week that might shed light on a failed prosecution of four Philadelphia lawmakers, including whether Attorney General Kathleen Kane killed the case when retrieving it from federal authorities.
Kane’s office denies the contention of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams that she took back the case from federal prosecutors in January 2013, soon after taking office. The case has pitted Kane against former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina, who works for Williams.
Kane has said the case — in which undercover informant Tyron Ali posed as a lobbyist and gave lawmakers cash — was dormant before her dismissal.
The “naked corruption” of lawmakers accepting cash has shocked people, even in a legislature accustomed to seeing colleagues in handcuffs, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester County.
Since 2007, 11 of 15 legislators charged with crimes have been convicted on charges ranging from fraud to theft of tax money for political campaigns. But taking cash payoffs is another level, Leckrone said.
If President Judge Todd Hoover agrees to unseal documents — as the Tribune-Review requested last week — it’s not clear whether the public will see transcripts of cash offerings by Ali, who recorded the conversations for state prosecutors.
Still, the documents may help explain the pitched public battle between Kane and former old-guard prosecutors about whether the case was valid from the outset, who halted it and why.
“It is under seal. I can’t even comment on what — if the records were released — what would be in there. That would be a violation of the seal order and the gag order,” Kane said on Saturday.
Asked why she supports the Trib’s motion: “I always think that transparency is important to the public. That’s just always been the way I am.”
Asked about Williams’ assertion that she took the Ali case just to kill it, Kane said, “That’s ridiculous.”
Were feds involved?
One issue the records might illuminate: Williams’ allegation that Kane took the case back from the feds.
“No one left her with a potentially embarrassing decision to make; all she had to do was let the investigation take its course in the hands of federal authorities,” Williams said in a newspaper op-ed piece last month. “But she didn’t do that. Instead, she asked for the case back. And then, after going out of her way to reclaim the investigation, she shut it down.”
Kane’s spokesman J.J. Abbott said Fina “may believe he referred the sting case to federal authorities, (but) the Office of Attorney General determined federal authorities never accepted the case for prosecution.”
In a document released last month to explain her actions, Kane denied that Fina had to take the case to the federal government because she had a conflict involving a former campaign employee of hers and a Philadelphia candidate to whom Ali allegedly gave illegal campaign money.
Kane’s office did not name her employee or the candidate, and said it could not corroborate the supposed contribution.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Edward J. Hanko, who heads the Philadelphia office, declined to comment through a spokeswoman, as did the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Crimes did occur
Kane said a flawed case meant she could not prosecute the four Democratic lawmakers. Yet the audiotapes suggest crimes occurred, she said.
“I believe we have evidence that certain legislators were taking money, and that’s a crime,” Kane told reporters a day after The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed the sting.
Those recorded — Reps. Ron Waters, Louise Bishop, Vanessa Brown and Michelle Brownlee — have declined to comment.
The House Ethics Committee is investigating and could censure the lawmakers, leading to a potential vote on expulsion.
State officials — from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a former federal and state prosecutor, legislative leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers — say they were taken aback that it’s legal for lawmakers to accept cash if there’s no quid pro quo and they disclose it. The four lawmakers reported no gifts.
House leaders last week banned cash gifts through a rule change, and both chambers will consider legislation to do so.
“I was kind of shocked,” said Rep. George Dunbar, R-Jeannette, co-chairman of a reform caucus, who plans to offer a bill on Monday limiting gifts.
Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said every lawmaker with whom he spoke was unaware there’s no specific law against accepting cash.
It is a crime to accept cash with an understanding to vote a certain way, said former Acting Attorney General Walter Cohen.
Ali posed as a lobbyist seeking to influence votes on bills such as liquor privatization and voter ID.
Reminiscent of Abscam
The case gained attention because it’s magnified by the popular movie “American Hustle,” about the Abscam sting operation in which the FBI snared members of Congress through a phony sheikh in the late 1970s, Leckrone said.
“I have never heard of anything like this,” said former Attorney General Ernie Preate, a Republican convicted of mail fraud in 1995. “Everything that’s happened is bizarre.”
Hoover gave Kane and Ali’s Philadelphia lawyer, Robert Levant, until Monday to respond to the Trib’s motion to open the case files. Kane said she would support the Trib’s motion. Levant declined to comment.
Cohen said he thinks those involved believe Hoover will open the record.
Only the judge, prosecutors and attorneys know what’s in the sealed files, but lawyers and political strategists are speculating about what the case might reveal about Kane’s feud with Fina and Williams.
Republican Rep. Mike Vereb, a former police officer from Montgomery County, predicted the documents won’t “elevate the confidential informant to sainthood.”
From all appearances, Ali was a “scam artist,” Cohen said.
Kane ended the sting, saying Ali had no reasonable suspicion to start payoffs in 2010, potentially targeted black lawmakers, and lacked supervision.
She accused Fina of making an extraordinarily lenient deal with Ali, dismissing 2,088 fraud charges the state had against him, for his cooperation. Kane later acknowledged that she formally dismissed the charges against Ali, a former day care center operator accused of ripping off the Department of Education.
Cohen reviewed a copy of the cooperation agreement that the Trib obtained and found it unusual.
Normally, prosecutors keep charges against informants until they testify. With no one charged, Ali did not testify. Still, any cooperation agreement should have been the incoming attorney general’s choice, Cohen said. He found it suspicious that Fina and Levant signed the agreement on Nov. 30, after the election but before Kane’s inauguration.
Fina would not comment. Williams, who is black, has said he saw no racism apparent in the sting.
Oddly, then-Attorney General Linda Kelly did not sign the agreement, Cohen said, noting that because of that Kane could have let the judge decide whether to affirm the dismissal of charges against Ali.
One could argue her office let a guy off the hook who committed “nearly a half-million dollars in fraud” to snare lawmakers with a combined $20,000, Cohen said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.