Constituents' varying reactions to the sting scandal

"I'm not sure it's a racial issue. But taking money is a crime." - Orchidia Violet, of West Philadelphia
"I'm not sure it's a racial issue. But taking money is a crime." - Orchidia Violet, of West Philadelphia
Posted: March 22, 2014

The undercover investigation that taped four Philadelphia Democratic legislators and a judge accepting cash or gifts may seem nuanced and complex.

But constituents of the stung officials in West Philadelphia and its environs expressed little ambiguity about the morality of officeholders taking payments.

"Wrong is wrong, as simple as that," said Marian Thomas, 70, who was walking along 47th Street and Springfield Avenue the other day.

Annie Mroz, 23, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student, agreed: "It confirms there's a layer of sleaze in local politics in Philadelphia. It's quite clearly unethical."

On other aspects of the case - that race and politics may have played a role, for example - people expressed less agreement.

The sting reminded people that stories of political graft are commonplace in the region. Still, when new players appear in what's perceived as the same old tale, the revelations can have a startling effect.

"When any person in leadership is accused of these things, it becomes almost traumatizing," said Chad Dion Lassiter, president of the Black Men at Penn at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. It's an advocacy group providing therapy and mentoring for at-risk youths.

"You put your faith and trust in elected officials. For marginalized people, especially," he said, "whom these legislators represent, it becomes difficult for them."

Over a three-year period beginning in 2010, the state Attorney General's Office ran a sting in which a lobbyist who had been arrested in a $430,000 fraud case wore a wire and taped officials accepting gifts and money.

After taking office, Attorney General Kathleen Kane decided to drop the case, saying the investigation had been poorly conceived and tainted with racism because it targeted African American officials.

Prosecutors said they believed that Kane had killed a solid investigation and that the attorney general's allegation that race had played a role in the case was outrageous.

The Inquirer, citing people with knowledge of the sting, reported Sunday that those caught on tape included former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, who acknowledged receiving a bracelet.

Four state lawmakers took money, the sources said: Michelle Brownlee ($3,500), whose district includes Fairmount, Brewerytown, Mantua, Spring Garden, and parts of West Philadelphia; Louise Bishop ($1,500), West Philadelphia and Overbrook; Vanessa Brown ($4,000), Belmont, Carroll Park, Mill Creek, Haddington, and Strawberry Mansion; and Ronald Waters ($7,650), West Philadelphia and parts of Delaware County, including Yeadon.

The fact that all the accused are black resonated differently among constituents.

For Rondelle Copes, 43, who was picking up a child from St. Francis De Sales School at 47th Street and Springfield Avenue, race was secondary.

"If these people committed these crimes, they need to be punished - black, white, or candy-striped," she said.

That's essentially what Orchidia Violet, 50, of West Philadelphia, said: "I'm not sure it's a racial issue. But taking money is a crime."

Conversely, Thomas said that, while the officials acted improperly, there was no doubt they were targeted because they're black.

Their mistake, she said, was trying to "imitate Caucasians, who have been doing it [illicitly accepting money] for years."

Thomas said there would always be greater scrutiny of black people, who would never get away with breaking rules as easily as white people. She added, "We're still black in white America."

Pastor J.B. Adams of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Overbrook, who is white, said he was concerned that African Americans "were singled out to look at their pimples and warts."

Adams added that "everybody has a little corruption in them" and that "a sting of basically innocent people can entrap even them." He referred specifically to Bishop, who represents his community, and who, he said, "isn't corrupt, arrogant, and egotistical like [former State Sen. Vince] Fumo," who was imprisoned on federal corruption charges.

"If the sting was going after people who were notorious, like a Fumo, I would see it differently. But you can seduce even very honest people, like Bishop.

"So what was she being seduced for?"

The answer to that wasn't clear to Jeb Woody, 36, having coffee in a shop a few doors from Brownlee's office.

The case against the officials was "absolutely" an example of entrapment, he said. "The bigger problem is that someone can decide to entrap people. Prosecutors broke the law before they left the gate."

That the case was ultimately spiked didn't sit well with Mick Houston, 45, owner of Jack's Firehouse restaurant, which is in Brownlee's district.

"Not prosecuting gives the air of politics being involved," he said, implying that Kane didn't pursue the case to protect Democrats, an allegation she vigorously denies.

"The charges are extremely serious, and there should be better explanations than, 'I don't recall taking money,' " which is what Brownlee said when asked about accepting $3,500 in the sting.

While the legislators caught in the sting represent many low-income African Americans, portions of their districts are quite heterogeneous, said David Elesh, Temple University sociologist.

For example, Fairmount and Brewerytown have been gentrifying for years, and a great deal of money is invested in home ownership and redevelopment there, he said.

Similarly, said David Bartelt, urban affairs professor at Temple, portions of Overbrook are middle class and even upper-middle class.

But for the most part, places like Mantua, Strawberry Mansion, and Yeadon are "still pretty depressed," Elesh said, with a good deal of public housing. Poverty and violence remain part of everyday life, the professors said.

At this point, it's difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the aborted sting operation, various people said.

But, said Houston, one thing is certain: "It's almost laughable, the state of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania politics.

"This thing is another notch against politicians in general."


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

@AlfredLubrano

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