In wake of attorney general probe of Philly pols, questions remain

Posted: March 19, 2014

ON THE second day, Attorney General Kathleen Kane fought back.

Pennsylvania's Democratic top prosecutor was on the defensive yesterday after a front-page story in Sunday's Inquirer - with a PEARL-HARBOR-BOMBED-size headline - suggested that her office had botched a probe in which five Philly pols were caught taking cash or gifts from a lobbyist. Kane said at a feisty Harrisburg news conference that the case she was handed when she took office last year was unwinnable.

"We believe that certain legislators were taking money, and that's a crime," said Kane, who pointed out that federal prosecutors and the Philadelphia district attorney also have been unable to find a way to press charges and that a GOP district attorney in Dauphin County has concurred.

But the Committee of Seventy, the government-watchdog group, called for state lawmakers to name an independent counsel to review the handling of the case, from the Attorney General's Office to the four state House members and a Philadelphia judge named as accepting gifts.

Just 48 hours after the story broke, the convoluted matter was quickly becoming the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 of Pennsylvania politics - a story with a lot more questions than answers, giving rise to nonstop speculation and even conspiracy theories.

Here's a quick look at a few unanswered questions:

* 1. How many politicians actually were snared in the probe?

The Inquirer said the probe began in 2010 - Gov. Corbett's last year as attorney general - when an obscure lobbyist facing major fraud charges, Tyron B. Ali, agreed to wear a wire and offer money and gifts to politicians. Reports have named five, all African-Americans from Philadelphia, who allegedly accepted some gratuity on tape: state Reps. Ronald Waters, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee and Louise Bishop, and former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes. All issued some form of denial - either that they had done nothing wrong or did not even recall the alleged encounter.

But yesterday, Kane claimed that eight political figures were involved, and that the cash payments in the attempted sting totaled $20,000. So who are the three who were not named in the initial news report, and why were they omitted?

* 2. What laws - if any - actually were broken?

Bizarre as it sounds, it's not necessarily illegal in Pennsylvania for a lobbyist to hand an envelope stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash to an elected official. Experts say that at least 35 other states have stricter limits on gifts. Of course, even in Pennsylvania it's bribery to give a politician cash in a quid pro quo for some official action, but news accounts have suggested that there's little evidence of that.

"It's the line between what's corrupt and legal versus what is actually illegal - and the problem here is what's legal," said Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia lawyer specializing in election law. It is illegal for an official to accept a gift of significant value and not report it on an annual financial-disclosure form - a misdemeanor that in theory can lead to up to a year in jail but in reality is rarely prosecuted in Pennsylvania.

* 3. Why did Kane's predecessors drop all criminal charges against Ali?

Ali, a Philadelphia day-care-center operator and a registered lobbyist, was charged with a particularly revolting crime: Skimming more than $430,000 from a program meant to feed hungry low-income children and seniors. But last year - after Ali had recorded his encounters with the Philadelphia pols but before anyone had been charged, let alone provided any testimony - the charges were dropped, in a move that now stuns legal and political observers.

"It's one thing to reduce charges against somebody," noted Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, the Committee of Seventy's vice president and policy director, but she called the dropping of all charges, given the circumstances, "surprising."

* 4. What role does race play in the controversy?

Clearly it plays some role, but the significance depends on whom you ask. Kane maintained yesterday that prosecutors who worked the case before she took office "were told to focus only on the black caucus," which troubled her. The prosecutors who worked the case told the Inquirer that an unknown number of unnamed Republicans were targeted, and others suggested that Ali met with his fellow blacks because that's where he had access. Seth Williams, the African-American Philadelphia D.A. who has hired the top two prosecutors who'd worked the case for Corbett and interim Attorney General Linda Kelly, has said that "the notion that they would target anyone based on race is ridiculous."

* 5. Why can't Williams prosecute the case?

For one thing, the Philly D.A.'s office has a long history of rarely targeting political corruption. Practically, Williams told the Inquirer he doubted that he could compel Ali to testify now that the charges have been dropped.

* 6. Why can't they make the tapes public, to better inform voters?

Said Kane yesterday: "Because they are still evidence."

* 7. How will this all play out politically?

Kane, whose aggressive early moves on issues including support of gay marriage have led to speculation about seeking higher office, was initially slow to respond to the explosive allegations, which some saw as a sign of political inexperience. "I think she's tarred," said longtime political communications consultant Larry Ceisler - although he didn't think her standing among Democrats would be affected.

It remains to be seen whether Corbett's well-funded re-election effort will use the controversy to alarm voters about the Democrats' gaining power in Harrisburg.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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