The Philly sting that stung no one

Posted: March 18, 2014

IT'S REALLY a sitcom already half-written.

"I Love Lucre," or "It's Always Money in Philadelphia."

I'm talking about the sting that stung no one but handed out goodies to Philly pols, reported in delicious detail in yesterday's Inquirer.

Plot lines and prosecutors cross paths and purposes in a made-for-TV story that even by Philadelphia standards verges on amazing.

It roils Pennsylvania politics.

It further damages the integrity and reputation of a Legislature with almost none of the former and little interest in the latter.

It raises questions about selective prosecution.

And it puts Democratic darling/statewide star Kathleen Kane in an even brighter light than she's become accustomed to.

The Inky says that Attorney General Kane shut down a multiyear sting that started when Gov. Corbett was attorney general, on grounds that it was poorly run and probably racist.

She sure has a way of warming to the guv.

Supporters of the sting, run by feared former state prosecutor Frank Fina, say Kane killed a sound case that could have grown larger.

(Fina now works in the Philly District Attorney's Office. He honchoed state probes that led to jailing Jerry Sandusky and dozens of state lawmakers and aides caught up in public corruption.)

But picture this.

A guy with a name from central casting, Tyron B. Ali, dons pinstripe suits and gold rings, dines at the Palm and gets driven around in a BMW with a state agent acting as chauffeur.

Ali's all wired up and ready to snare.

He does this and the state drops charges that he skimmed money - lots of it, $430,000 - from a state program to feed poor kids and seniors.

Script material, right?

He networks, hands out money, gets public officials on tape. It goes so well, there's talk of getting him a wired-up office in Harrisburg to increase the catch.

Ah, but this is a sting like the 2013 hit film "American Hustle," although not in the way you're thinking.

More like plenty of potential, zero prizes.

The film was nominated for 10 Oscars. It won none.

The Ali sting collected 400 hours of audio and videotape documenting Philly Democratic pols pocketing payments totaling $18,650 (including a $2,000 Tiffany charm bracelet) that never were disclosed or reported as required.

But because the case gets closed, nobody gets pinched.

All we get for who-knows-how-much spent are sitcomlike responses to the Inky from the pols named as paid.

Rep. Ron Waters (allegedly $7,650 from Ali): "He never gave me anything."

This was amended to: "I'm trying to remember if he gave me something for my birthday."

Well, hey, memory can fade after 15 years in the Legislature.

Rep. Vanessa Brown (allegedly $4,000; taped saying, "Ooowe . . . thank you twice"): "I would like to not say anything at all."

Not even once?

Rep. Louise Bishop (allegedly $1,500): "I wish I could help. Never met him. . . . I really don't know who he is."

Did I just hear a cock crow?

Rep. Michelle Brownlee (allegedly $3,500): "I don't recall taking any money from him."

How about accepting any money from him?

Former Traffic Court chief Thomasine Tynes, already facing charges related to ticket-fixing (allegedly a $2,000 charm bracelet): first said she mailed it back to Ali, then said she found it in her safe-deposit box, later said she needs to talk with her attorney about what to do with it.

That answer could charm any jury.

But the whole hot mess raises questions.

Did prosecutors use their power to create crime rather than find it, a/k/a entrapment, thereby making convictions unlikely?

(Before answering, remember Fina's record of success.)

Did a politically ambitious attorney general use her power to protect fellow Democrats?

(Before answering, remember that Kane last week announced charges against Democratic state Sen. LeAnna Washington.)

Did Team Fina, already in the crosshairs of Kane's investigation into the handling of the Sandusky case, bring this to light to exact revenge on Kane or to blunt any Sandusky fallout before or if it happens?

(Before answering, remember that this is what we in media call semi-informed but mostly wild-ass speculation.)

Is Kane's assertion that prosecutors targeted only African-Americans - a claim that a source close to Fina calls "a desperate smear" - correct?

(Before answering, note that all alleged gift-takers are black but all convicted in legislative scandals - Perzel, DeWeese, etc. - are white.)

And, finally, since the Inky reports that the feds didn't want the case, is Kane right in saying it's flawed and all this is just the "Good Old Boys club" seeking to discredit her?

(Before answering, remember that sitcoms have many episodes, reruns and sometimes multiple seasons.)


Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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