The gifts that keep on giving

Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the probe was too flawed to proceed.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane said the probe was too flawed to proceed.
Posted: March 24, 2014

The failed, shuttered, and yet much-debated attorney general's sting against Democratic elected officials is like a poor man's American Hustle, something David O. Russell wouldn't touch with a bad comb-over.

It seems so terribly Pennsylvanian. Here we have a quartet of state representatives from Philadelphia allegedly recorded accepting cash or money orders from the "very bling" lobbyist-turned-informant Tyron B. Ali, who appears to have lobbied mostly for himself.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who has been a blistering critic of the investigation, said she believed that the legislators had committed crimes but that the sting was so flawed, "there is nothing we can do to salvage this case."

In what world, you may ask, is it legal for a lawmaker to take cash (or money orders) from a lobbyist?

Why, Pennsylvania, the land that ethics forgot.

While Philadelphia continues to pass stringent ethics rules - Council recently approved one prohibiting city officers and employees from accepting cash - there is little stopping Harrisburg legislators from taking legal tender as long as there is no proof of improper influence or a conflict of interest.

You would think this would be wrong in any legitimate business, particularly one involving lawmaking, but you would be wrong. The only crime here is not reporting it.

It's as if every day in Harrisburg is a potential bar mitzvah. (According to a grand jury, one legislator, Sen. LeAnna "I'm the f-ing senator" Washington, treated her birthday as a fund-raising opportunity.)

While the merits of the shuttered investigation will be debated for some time in multiple forums, we are faced with the more immediate matter of State Rep. Ron "My man, happy birthday to Ron Waters" Waters (who allegedly accepted $7,650 in the dropped investigation), Rep. Vanessa "I would like to not say anything at all," Brown (who allegedly accepted $4,000), Rep. Michelle "I don't recall taking any money" Brownlee (who allegedly accepted $3,500), and Rep. Louise "Never met him" Bishop (who allegedly accepted $1,500). All continue to represent Philadelphians, although how well is open to question.

Thanks to the calcified yet powerful Democratic machine that controls city politics, only one of these august lawmakers is facing a challenge in the May 20 primary. Washington, who has been charged with following that old Harrisburg custom of using staff to raise campaign funds, remains on the ballot, too.

How have Democratic potentates responded to the matter? Or the Democratic City Committee? Crickets.

The initial, equivocating response to the allegations by House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny): "If it's true that any legislators accepted gifts without reporting them, they should correct that reporting mistake."

Blistering stuff, that.

Unsealing documents

What happens now? Kane, who has charged that the case was badly managed and tainted by racial targeting, seems unlikely to reopen the case, though she is moving to unseal key documents related to Ali and his arrangement with prosecutors, and to make them available to the public.

The feds, according to Kane, don't appear interested in the case. Good-government activist Gene Stilp has asked the state Ethics Commission to investigate, as well as the House of Representatives' Committee on Ethics. The commission can impose financial penalties, and the committee could move to censure the legislators so that they can't vote on the floor, but neither can conduct a criminal prosecution. And the legislators can continue to collect their paychecks.

At an impasse

"The public deserves to see corrupt elected officials brought to justice," Kane wrote in these pages. "But the responsibility for the failure of this case rests with the former prosecutors." She also noted in an Inquirer op-ed, "There are serious ethical and legal issues to be raised both against those who were targeted and allegedly took cash, and those who targeted them."

But who precisely will raise them? The sting appears to be at an impasse, yet the taint and stink of those serious ethical and legal issues are all around us.

This filthy system continues. Taking gifts and cash is allowed when it never should be. The problem is that the legislature, the entity that should be strengthening these lax laws, continues to benefit from this broken structure, even if a few of its members get caught.

Until lawmakers are no longer permitted to accept such gifts, our problems will fester. Pennsylvanians deserve so much better.

215-854-2586 @kheller

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