Angela Couloumbis and Craig R. McCoy, Philly, March 17, 2014
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office ran an undercover sting operation over three years that captured leading Philadelphia Democrats, including four members of the city’s state House delegation, on tape accepting money, The Inquirer has learned.
Yet no one was charged with a crime.
Prosecutors began the sting in 2010 when Republican Tom Corbett was attorney general. After Democrat Kathleen G. Kane took office in 2013, she shut it down.
In a statement to The Inquirer on Friday, Kane called the investigation poorly conceived, badly managed, and tainted by racism, saying it had targeted African Americans.
Those who favored the sting believe Kane killed a solid investigation, led by experienced prosecutor Frank G. Fina, that had ensnared several public officials and had the potential to capture more. They said they were outraged at Kane’s allegation that race had played a role in the case.
Before Kane ended the investigation, sources familiar with the inquiry said, prosecutors amassed 400 hours of audio and videotape that documented at least four city Democrats taking payments in cash or money orders, and in one case a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet.
Typically, the payments made at any one time were relatively modest–ranging from $500 to $2,000–but most of those involved accepted multiple payments, people familiar with the investigation said. In some cases, the payments were offered in exchange for votes or contracts, they said.
Sources with knowledge of the sting said the investigation made financial pitches to both Republicans and Democrats, but only Democrats accepted the payments.
The investigation’s undercover operative was a little-known lobbyist, Tyron B. Ali, 40, who agreed to wear a wire and tape the officials to win favorable treatment after his arrest in a $430,000 fraud case, the newspaper has learned.
In an unusual move, the Attorney General’s Office then dropped the fraud charges secretly, under seal, last fall.
People with knowledge of the investigation said those caught on tape included former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, who acknowledged that Ali gave her the bracelet.
Four state lawmakers took money, the sources said. State Rep. Ronald G. Waters accepted multiple payments totaling $7,650; State Rep. Vanessa Brown took $4,000; State Rep. Michelle Brownlee received $3,500; and State Rep. Louise Bishop took $1,500, said people with knowledge of the investigation.
Bishop denied receiving money. Brownlee said she couldn’t recall taking a payment, and Brown declined to discuss the matter.
In May 2011, Ali went to Brown’s office and handed her an envelope with $2,000, according to people who have reviewed a transcript of a tape Ali made on that day.
As Brown accepted the money, they said, she put it in her purse and said: “Yo, good looking and Ooowee. . . . Thank you twice.”
After he gave Brown the money, Ali urged her to vote against a bill that would require voters to show identification at the polls, the sources said.
Brown voted against the measure–as did every other Democrat in the House.
Waters, for his part, said he did not recall receiving any money from Ali, but later added: “I’m trying to remember if he gave me something for my birthday.”
In April 2011, to mark Waters’ 61st birthday, Ali gave him $1,000, and the transaction was recorded on tape, according to people who read a transcript of the conversation.
As Ali handed Waters an envelope, the sources said, Ali told him: “Hey, there’s $1,000 in there, bro.”
According to the sources, Waters replied: “My man, happy birthday to Ron Waters.”
Tynes, in interviews with The Inquirer, confirmed that Ali gave her the bracelet. She initially said she had mailed it back to him, but later said she had kept it, lost track of it, and recently discovered it in her safe deposit box at a local bank.
Those who sources say pocketed the cash failed to report it, as required by law, on annual financial disclosure forms for public officials, records show. Under state law, those omissions may be considered false swearing to authorities, a crime with a penalty of up to one year in jail.
Kane declined to be interviewed about her handling of the case and instead issued a statement attributed to her office.
In the statement, Kane provided only one quote, dismissing those who questioned her decisions as “nothing more than the Good Ol’ Boys club playing political games to discredit me in order to fulfill their own selfish and improper agenda.”
The statement cited Kane’s pursuit of political-corruption cases, including the pay-to-play scandal involving Democrats tied to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the corruption charges brought last week against Democratic State Sen. LeAnna Washington.
After Kane took office, her top staff conducted a review of the sting operation, in partnership with FBI agents. In the end, she chose not to pursue it.
In addition to asking federal officials to assess the case, her office asked the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office in Harrisburg to review it as well.
In an interview, District Attorney Ed Marsico, a Republican, said his staff had reviewed a summary of the investigation prepared by Kane’s staff and determined the case “almost unprosecutable.”
He said he did not read the full case file or listen to the tapes or read the transcripts. Nor did his office talk to Ali, who Marsico said had refused to meet with his staff.
In explaining the decision to close the sting investigation without filing charges, Kane said one reason was that prosecutors in the case had issued orders to target “only members of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus” and to ignore “potentially illegal acts by white members of the General Assembly.”
Fina, the lead prosecutor, declined to discuss the case. People who have spoken to him about the investigation said he vehemently denies that race was a factor.
Fina’s supporters noted that Claude Thomas, the lead agent on the Ali case, is African American and that Ali also is a person of color.
In the statement, Kane’s office quoted the lead agent in the case (Thomas) as saying he had been told to target members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
People close to Thomas said no one ever gave him such an order and he never said such a thing to Kane’s staff. Had anyone made such a suggestion, Thomas would have rejected it, they said.
The Inquirer pieced together the story of the aborted investigation from interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with different aspects of the inquiry–and with widely differing opinions of it.
Sources with knowledge of the sting said Ali approached a wide range of officials, from both parties, black and white. In time, the sources said, Ali didn’t even have to reach out to elected officials. They called him.
Things were going so well that, in the summer of 2012, prosecutors considered setting Ali up in a fancy lobbying office near the Capitol. The plan was to rig the Harrisburg office with hidden cameras and expand the hunt–a move that supporters of the sting say would likely have produced a larger and more diverse pool of willing elected officials.
But after Kane took office in January of last year, she began to take a critical look at the case.
By then, as Kane pointed out in her statement, the case had been dormant since early the year before. Prosecutors were using those months to lobby for an expansion of the probe, sources close to Fina said.
Once Kane took over, Fina, along with other prosecutors and investigators on his public-corruption team, had left the Attorney General’s Office. Despite Fina’s run of convictions, Kane did not ask him to stay on.
Along with the corruption probes, Fina had led another high-stakes criminal inquiry: the investigation of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach. Two years ago, in a case that drew national attention, Sandusky was convicted of multiple charges of child sexual abuse.
Kane, during her 2012 campaign, had run hard on the theme that prosecutors had moved too slowly on the Sandusky case. After her win, she fulfilled a pledge by hiring a former Philadelphia federal prosecutor to, in effect, investigate Fina’s investigation.
Within hours of Kane’s inaugural, technicians on her staff went into Fina’s office–after hours–and removed the hard drive from his computer, according to sources. Fina was in his last week on the job when the removal took place. Kane’s aides apparently were looking for information related to Fina’s work on the Sandusky case.
If nothing else, the clandestine hard-drive seizure demonstrated just how poisonous the relationship had become between the incoming Kane administration and Fina’s team.
And there was this: Fina, before he left the Attorney General’s Office, copied the sting’s case file and gave it to federal prosecutors in Philadelphia.
They did not pick up the case. It’s not clear if federal prosecutors shared Kane’s concerns, were reluctant to adopt an investigation begun by others, or simply didn’t want to be seen as taking sides in a dispute roiling a companion law enforcement agency.