A.G. Kane assails critics of decision to halt Philly politicians sting

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane says the investigation was deeply flawed.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane says the investigation was deeply flawed. (File)
Posted: March 18, 2014

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane on Sunday lashed out at critics of her decision to shut down an undercover investigation that had captured leading Philadelphia Democrats - including four members of the state House delegation - on tape accepting money.

Kane blamed "cowardly anonymous sources" for providing "an inaccurate and sensational version of the details" of the case, which were made public in an article in The Inquirer on Sunday.

The paper reported that prosecutors in the Attorney General's Office had run a sting for three years that captured at least five city Democrats on tape accepting cash or money orders, and in one case a $2,000 bracelet. In the end, no one was charged.

In a statement Friday, Kane said the investigation was poorly conceived, badly managed, and tainted by racism. She also said those who criticized her handling of the case were sexist.

On Sunday, Kane called the investigation "deeply flawed" and defended her decision not to bring charges.

"The notion of elected officials accepting bribes or cash turns my stomach," she said in the statement. "It is unfortunate that the investigation was so botched that this case was found unable to be prosecuted."

According to people familiar with the investigation, those caught on tape included former Traffic Court President Judge Thomasine Tynes and State Reps. Louise Bishop, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee, and Ronald G. Waters.

Waters accepted multiple payments totaling $7,650; Brown took $4,000; Brownlee received $3,500; and Bishop took $1,500, the sources said.

Waters, Bishop, and Brownlee did not respond to messages seeking comment Sunday.

Waters said last week that the undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali, a Philadelphia lobbyist, might have given him a birthday gift, but that he could not recall for sure. Brownlee has said she did not remember whether she took money. Bishop denied receiving money.

Brown, in a brief interview Sunday, again declined to comment. Last week, she said, "I would like not to say anything at all."

Tynes, the former Traffic Court judge, reiterated Sunday she had no idea a bracelet Ali gave her was worth $2,000. She said she thought it was an inexpensive knockoff until she had it examined at Tiffany & Co.

Tynes, who is awaiting trial on federal charges of perjury and fixing tickets, said she had tried to pay Ali back but could not find an address for him. As for the bracelet, she added, "I never wore it."

The investigation began in 2010 under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican. After taking office in 2013, Kane, a Democrat, ended the inquiry.

Those who favored the undercover operation said Kane had killed a solid investigation led by experienced prosecutor Frank G. Fina.

They said the sting - in which Ali handed out cash and money orders while wearing a wire to record the encounters - had developed potent evidence against several officials and had the potential to ensnare more.

Ali struck a deal with Fina under which the state dropped the charges against him in a $430,000 fraud case in exchange for his cooperation. Kane said the deal, reached just before she was sworn in, was far too lenient - and "crippled the chance of this case succeeding in court."

In an interview Sunday with the Associated Press, Kane said, "There's no way a jury would convict on this." Kane declined a request from The Inquirer for an interview Sunday.

Also on Sunday, Republicans in the state House of Representatives called on Kane to give a fuller explanation of her decision to shut down the investigation first detailed in The Inquirer.

"The Inquirer article is troubling," said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for the Republican majority in the House. "It raises some major and very serious concerns."

He added, "Blaming 'racism' and the 'the good ol' boys' just doesn't cut it. We expect a full and thorough explanation from the attorney general about these issues."

In her statement Sunday, Kane suggested Fina could pursue the cases anew in his current role as a prosecutor in the anticorruption unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

But Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, a Democrat, said Sunday he thought it would be difficult for his office to prosecute the cases abandoned by Kane, although he said he was open to reviewing the matter.

For one thing, he said Ali apparently no longer had any legal obligation to testify against those he had taped because the charges against him had been dropped.

"There's no way I can use him under any prosecutorial theory I can think of," Williams said.

Perhaps, Williams suggested, an ethics panel of the state House could take a look at the cases.

Last week, Williams issued a strongly worded statement that denounced Kane for suggesting Fina and other officials in the case might have acted improperly.

Kane, in her statement Friday, said Claude Thomas, who as an agent in the Attorney General's Office had worked with Fina on the sting, had said those running the operation had told him to pursue African American lawmakers and avoid targeting white ones.

Thomas, too, now works for District Attorney Williams.

Fina and Thomas have declined to comment, but people close to them say they have said Kane's statements are incorrect.

Thomas has said that no one ever gave him such a racially oriented directive and that he never told Kane's staff that anyone had, according to people close to Thomas.

In the interview Sunday, Williams said Fina had prosecuted Democrats and Republicans in such high-profile investigations as the Harrisburg-based Bonusgate and Computergate probes.

In the sting case, he said, those captured on tape were people in Ali's immediate realm.

"When you prosecute a member of the 52d Street Gang, you get people who are going to look like people from 52d Street," Williams said. "When you prosecute people in Lower Merion, they are going to be people who look like they come from Lower Merion."

In Harrisburg, leaders of the Democrats in the state House, who are in the minority in that chamber, did not respond to a request for comment.


A statement from Kane

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane issued the following statement Sunday elaborating on the reasons for her decision to shut down an undercover operation:

"The allegations made by several cowardly anonymous sources in today's Philadelphia Inquirer paint an inaccurate and sensational version of the details and timeline of events related to Case File No. 36-622. The real truth is that this investigation was not only deeply flawed, but unraveled long before I was elected and then took the oath of office.

"The majority of the work, including 91 percent of the recordings by a confidential informant, took place 18 months prior to my inauguration, through three former attorneys general. Additionally, when prosecutors dismissed more than 2,000 serious charges of fraud that alleged their informant stole $430,000 meant for poor children and seniors, they crippled the chance of this case succeeding in prosecution. Despite the case originating in 2010, this agreement to drop the charges was signed just 24 days after I was elected and weeks before I was sworn in.

"After a detailed review, we learned even more disturbing information regarding this case, including that there may have been a racial focus to the targets of the investigation, improper reporting, inadequate resources and inadmissible evidence. . . .

"Furthermore, I do not have any animosity towards the lead prosecutor of this case. I do not know the former prosecutor any more than I know the individuals targeted in this investigation. If the former prosecutor believes the case is strong enough to move forward, he currently has concurrent jurisdiction in public corruption matters.

"Prosecuting political corruption remains a top priority of my administration. The notion of elected officials accepting bribes or cash turns my stomach. It is unfortunate that the investigation was so botched that this case was found unable to be prosecuted not just by career professionals in my office but both federal authorities and Dauphin County District Attorney Edward Marisco, a Republican.

"I stand solidly behind the decisions of my administration and assure the people of Pennsylvania that my office holds itself to a much higher standard of professionalism, prosecutorial discretion and respect for the civil liberties of all Pennsylvanians than apparently was displayed over the course of this investigation.. . .

"I will not sit back and allow lies from those who seek to destroy the public's trust in me or my office."


>Inquirer.com

If you missed Sunday's story about the undercover sting operation, you can find it at www.inquirer.com/sting.


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMccoy


Inquirer staff writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.

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