Undercover operative in bribery case denies targeting black lawmakers
HARRISBURG — The undercover informant at the center of a legislative bribery scandal made his first public appearance Monday, telling a court he did not target black lawmakers and ignore Republicans.
“No, I was not,” Tyron Ali said when asked if he was told by his supervisor in the attorney general’s office to go after the Legislative Black Caucus.
Ali testified in Dauphin County Court at a hearing on whether the so-called sting investigation that snared six Philadelphia Democrats was, as a defense attorney alleged, based on racial profiling and entrapment.
Wearing a dark pinstripe suit, white shirt and red tie, Ali told a judge how he posed as a lobbyist for fictitious businesses and wore a body wire to record conversations that resulted in the convictions of four legislators for taking cash, in return for promises of official action on legislation. A former judge also pleaded guilty to accepting a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet to help Ali’s fictitious client get a city contract.
The hearing was on behalf of the remaining defendant, Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia. Her attorney, Patrick Casey, said the case against his client is built on selective prosecution and entrapment. Brown was scheduled to plead guilty in June but pulled out of the plea bargain.
All six defendants are black.
“It’s selective prosecution in the head of Patrick Casey, nothing else,” said Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Brad Bender.
Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the case was unprosecutable and declined to pursue it. She was the first person to allege racial profiling, which she detailed at a 2014 news conference. The case was resurrected by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who is black. Ali’s supervisor for the probe, investigator Claude Thomas, is black.
Democratic Rep. Louise Bishop, who pleaded no contest to one count of fraudulent statement of financial interest, initially claimed racial targeting, but her attorney in December withdrew a claim of selective prosecution based on racial profiling and conceded in open court there was no evidence to support the claim.
Ali made 113 recordings in an investigation that began under Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett. He testified under subpoena.
Casey tried to suggest romantic interest as a motive. Ali said Brown made an inappropriate sexual comment to him that he conveyed to Thomas. Brown told him “You make my (expletive) sweat,” Ali said. They were not intimate, he said.
Prosecutors said there was no basis for the hearing, which resumes May 5. They deny entrapment and profiling.
Ali, of Trinidad, became a state witness because the attorney general’s office agreed to drop charges that he defrauded a day care center he operated in Philadelphia.
Ali appeared calm and deliberative as Casey fired off questions, frequently saying, “I do not recall.” He said he would be glad to answer if Casey provided names or documents to review. On the witness stand, he frequently adjusted his wire rim glasses to review documents.
Judge Scott Evans said he would allow limited testimony from Ali, but the hearing became an expanded four-hour inquiry by Casey that Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson called a “fishing expedition.”
Brown initially turned down cash campaign donations and asked for a check next time, Ali said. But Ali said Brown told him she was “ready to move to the next stage.”
Ali gave her $500 cash then $500 more a week later. Eventually she took $4,000 cash, according to a grand jury report. “Representative Brown constantly complained about her financial state,” Ali said.
Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 and [email protected].