A 3-year saga: How the sting unfolded

The Hilton Hotel on City Avenue
The Hilton Hotel on City Avenue
Posted: March 24, 2014

Tyron Ali just wanted to help.

If an elected official needed money for a campaign, he could deliver.

Worried about paying a bill? He could provide the cash.

Advice on how to maneuver politically? Talk to Ty.

All the while, unbeknownst to the recipients of his largesse, Ali was taping every word.

As he was chauffeured around in a BMW sedan, the Philadelphia lobbyist-turned-undercover agent wore a hidden recording device.

Sometimes, it was in the lapel of his crisply pressed shirt. Other times, it was in a pen he carried. Sometimes, he wore glasses equipped with a microphone and camera.

For three years, Ali, 40, fawned over state legislators, empathized with their problems, and bought them lunches, dinners, and gifts.

He also plied them with money - white envelopes stuffed with cash or money orders. Once, outside a Harrisburg restaurant, he wrapped $2,000 in cash in a napkin and handed it to a state lawmaker.

While Ali made payment after payment between late 2010 and early 2012 as an undercover operative for the state Attorney General's Office, prosecutors documented nearly every move he made.

"To making money together," Ali said as he toasted Thomasine Tynes, president judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court in August 2011, as the two dined at the Palm restaurant in Center City.

"To making money," the judge responded.

Before he won over his network of public officials, perhaps the most important deal Ali struck was the one he fashioned for himself.

In exchange for Ali's cooperation, prosecutors agreed to drop all charges against him in a massive fraud case. In an arrangement state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane has denounced as "the deal of the century," Ali walked free on 2,088 counts in a $430,000 fraud case.

In winning over prosecutors, Ali told them he knew the game and knew the players.

"According to [Ali] he has access to several political figures and elected officials in Philadelphia and provided information of past and present criminal activity in regards to those individuals," reads a summary of the Ali tapes obtained by The Inquirer.

This account is drawn from official case summaries made by investigators, complete with direct quotes from the covert tapes Ali made, as well as from interviews with people familiar with the sting operation.

The first big payoff Ali made was in the West Philadelphia office of State Rep. Ronald G. Waters. It was Oct. 22, 2010, when Ali went to see Waters, a Democrat elected to office 15 years ago.

At that meeting, Ali said he represented financial institutions in New York and Florida that were eyeing some projects in Waters' district.

He then asked Waters whether he had an opponent in the coming election. And did he need anything?

"I always need something," Waters said.

Ali then handed him $1,000: a $500 money order and $500 in cash.

"Here, this is for you," he said. "That's a grand."

"OK, my man," Waters replied.

"Just remember me," Ali asks.

Before Ali departed, Waters told him: "Got to just have meetings every now and then."

In an initial interview with The Inquirer, Waters, 63, said he never received anything from Ali. Two weeks later, when told he had been caught on tape, Waters said perhaps Ali had given him some kind of gift, maybe for his birthday.

He could not be reached for further comment last week.

'THIS IS FOR YOU'

LOUISE BISHOP | DEC. 1, 2010

Shortly after his October 2010 meeting with Waters, Ali got together with State Rep. Louise Bishop, another Democratic legislator from West Philadelphia and a gospel radio host for a half-century.

As he had with Waters, Ali told Bishop he represented several financial institutions interested in a West Philadelphia project.

"What can I do to help you?" he asked Bishop.

What would "secure [her] even more," the Democratic legislator responded, would be if Ali could help get a bank to open in a building operated by a nonprofit in her district.

Ali offered to "make a donation" and handed Bishop $500 in cash.

Bishop put the money in her purse.

Over the next few weeks, Ali and Bishop had several conversations - three by phone, two in person - about a controversial bill to privatize the sale of wine and liquor in Pennsylvania. The issue was difficult for Democrats in the legislature, as the union representing State Store clerks was against it.

But Ali told Bishop it was a good bill. Was there a way she could maneuver to get on the House committee that oversaw liquor issues? Bishop asked Ali to craft talking points to help her sell privatization to others.

On Dec. 1, 2010, Ali met with Bishop in her district office. The two again strategized about liquor privatization, and Ali gave Bishop a sheet with the arguments in favor of it.

As he rose to leave, Ali handed Bishop $500.

"This is for you in appreciation," he said. "Thank you so much for your time."

In interviews with The Inquirer, Bishop, 80, has denied accepting money from Ali - or even knowing him.

"Never met him," she said. "Never had any dealings with him at all."

She did not respond to messages last week.

'A GOD-GIVEN RIGHT OF LEVERAGE'

RONALD WATERS | DEC. 15, 2010

Ali also hammered away at the State Store issue with Waters, then a member of the House Liquor Control Committee.

On Dec. 15, 2010, in Waters' third-floor office in the Irvis Building in Harrisburg, the legislator reminded Ali of the fervent Democratic position opposing privatization. How should he deal with that?

Ali had answers. He touted how much money the state could make if it sold new liquor licenses. He suggested a retraining program for displaced workers, as well as the idea of easing into the reform with a pilot program, starting with just a dozen stores.

Ali said he would present Waters' committee with a proposal for a bill to lay out the steps for taking State Stores private. He knew it would take time to pass through the House and Senate. He knew it would be slow going.

Still, Waters expressed doubts.

Ali stood. He closed the door to Waters' office for more privacy.

He told the veteran legislator he needed to exercise his "God-given right of leverage."

As he sat again, he produced an envelope with $500.

"This is for you," Ali said.

"Oh, thank you," Waters responded.

 A LUNCH AT THE PALM

VANESSA BROWN | JANUARY 2011

On New Year's Day in 2011, Bishop hosted some of the city's Democratic power brokers at her home just off City Avenue in Wynnefield.

It was a mild, drizzly day, and an auspicious date on the calendar: 1/1/11.

Gathered in Bishop's old stone house, with its thick lawn and neat row of formal evergreens, were various elected officials. Ali was also there, working the room.

With Waters, as he had with Bishop, Ali talked about appointments to the House liquor-control panel.

With Democratic State Rep. Vanessa Brown, who had just started her second two-year term, he listened as she fretted about raising campaign money

He also got her phone number.

Ali wasted no time in setting up a lunch meeting with Brown at his favorite haunt, the Palm, in the Bellevue on Broad Street, a restaurant at which virtually every inch of wall space is festooned with cartoons of powerful Philadelphians.

Among the sketches is one of Ali with a Masons symbol on his lapel.

At a table for two on Jan. 21, 2011, Ali wanted to know how he could help.

Brown, first elected three years earlier, told him she did not have a plan for raising campaign money.

 Back at the Palm for lunch a week later, Ali handed Brown two white envelopes. Each contained $500.

"It's a start," he told her.

Brown told Ali she needed to raise $10,000. She said she would be more comfortable accepting the money in the form of a check.

Under state law, campaign donations of more than $100 must be made by check.

Though Pennsylvania law imposes no limits on what gifts legislators can receive, it requires them to publicly disclose any gifts worth more than $250.

Brown's financial-disclosure reports made no mention of any gifts from Ali. Nor do the reports filed by any of the legislators who accepted money from Ali.

Raising campaign money was just one of Brown's problems. She told Ali she had other money woes.

She owed $30,000 in legal bills. She had utility bills of $1,600 from her last campaign. And, in her mid-40s, she said, she wanted someday to own a house for the first time.

"I'm trying to help you, Vanessa," Ali said. "I don't know how you want me to help you."

Brown later suggested, "Can you put the money into my nonprofit?"

She then suggested two she favored, including one run by a relative.

Brown, 47, has declined to comment. Through her lawyer, she has denied any wrongdoing.  

AN INFORMER

LOUISE BISHOP | FEB. 3, 2011

On Feb. 3, 2011, Ali was wired by investigators for another breakfast meeting with Bishop at the Hilton on City Avenue.

The leadership had made committee assignments. Bishop was chair of Children and Youth. Neither she nor Waters had been appointed to the Liquor Control Committee, as they had hoped.

Later in the conversation, Bishop told Ali she had spoken to another Democratic state representative, Michelle Brownlee, who had this bombshell: Ali was "an informer."

Ali talked his way out of it. Brownlee and some of her associates didn't care for him, he said. That's probably why she was bad-mouthing him.

Bishop bought it.

"When you tell me what you tell me, I have to put her in the place of a liar," the legislator told Ali.  

'LOOK INSIDE'

VANESSA BROWN | FEB. 11, 2011

At a meeting in a Philadelphia restaurant on Feb. 11, 2011, Brown got right to the point. "I need you more now than ever," she told Ali.

She told him she needed to get serious about raising campaign money.

"I am ready to get busy," she said. "We need to get to the next stage."

She later asked: "When are you going to explain to me what you get out of the deal? Is that the next time we meet?"

"I like to slow-walk stuff," Ali responded.

"You sure do," Brown said.

Looking around, Ali didn't think there was anyone around who knew them. He handed Brown an envelope with money.

"Look inside," he said. "There should be $500 in there."

Brown counted the bills, confirming the amount. She then told Ali if there'd been 10 $1,000s she wouldn't have said anything.

Three days later, on Feb. 14, the two met again, this time in Brown's Harrisburg office. It was after 3:30 p.m. Once again, they talked about her bleak financial situation. At the time, Brown was paid $79,623 yearly.

After 45 minutes, Ali stood to leave. He pulled out an envelope. Ali asked for a piece of paper. He folded it around the envelope and handed it to Brown, saying, "There's five in there."

Brown accepted the money.

'I HAVE SOMETHING FOR YOU'

RONALD WATERS | FEB. 14, 2011

After leaving Brown's office building, Ali walked a few blocks to Raspberries restaurant at the Hilton Hotel. There, he spoke with Waters about obtaining a collection contract from the Republican-controlled Philadelphia Parking Authority.

"I know Vince, you know what I mean?" Waters said, referring to the authority's executive director, Vince Fenerty. Waters and Fenerty had worked together for many years at the Parking Authority.

"Can you help us get a contract?" Ali asked.

"Oh, I don't know, I can't promise that with this guy," Waters said. "I'm not saying the answer is no, but I don't make no promises."

"I understand that," Ali said. "Can you make it happen?"

"I'll call the guy up, man," Waters said.

As the two left the restaurant, Ali asked: "Where are you parked? Let me walk with you. I have something for you."

Before getting into the waiting blue BMW - driven by a special agent for the Attorney General's Office - Ali said: "Let me give you this, man. This is for you, all right."

He handed him an envelope with $500 in cash.

"Ah, man, thank you, brother," Waters said. "You the man. You take care, now."

Waters came through with a meeting. On April 1, 2011, he and Ali met with Fenerty and his deputy.

Fenerty said he was satisfied with the law firm that currently had the contract. He didn't feel the need to fix something that "ain't broken."

In an interview, Fenerty said he was troubled that Waters had apparently taken a payment for setting up a meeting with him. "I'm very disappointed in Rep. Waters' actions," he said.

A week earlier, at the Hilton Hotel on City Avenue, Ali greeted Bishop and handed her an envelope with $500.

"That's $500 for you, OK," he was recorded as saying.

"That's a great help," Bishop responded. "That's a biggie."

Bishop expressed her concern about job losses with the potential privatization of State Stores.

Ali said topics important to him would soon come up for a vote on the House calendar. "I'll let you know," he said.

"OK," she replied.

'HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO RON WATERS'

RONALD WATERS | APRIL 9, 2011

Two weeks later, on April 9, 2011, Ali attended a 61st birthday party for Waters at a banquet hall in Philadelphia.

When he spotted the legislator, he wished him well, adding, "Before you run around, I got something for you from our folks."

"Ahhh, you know how to make a birthday special," Waters said.

After mingling for a while, Ali was ready to depart. He thanked Waters for arranging the meeting with Fenerty. No problem, Waters said. He said he had known Fenerty for 20 years.

Ali handed Waters an envelope with $1,000. "Here," he said, "there's a thousand in there, bro."

"My man," Waters replied. "Happy birthday to Ron Waters."

Ali also gave him a Prensado cigar, adding: "Hope you enjoy it. That's for your birthday."

SANTA CLAUS

RONALD WATERS, VANESSA BROWN

APRIL 22, 2011

At times, the money came with strings.

Brown got her first taste of that on April 22, 2011.

She was meeting Ali for dinner. When he arrived, he handed her a box of pastries and an envelope with $500.

He called it "a little pick-me-up."

"Oooh," Brown replied, "that's so sweet. Thank you."

He repeated: "Make sure there's $500. I'm playing Santa Claus."

Ali got down to business. He said there were some votes coming up in the House and he needed her support. One was a telecommunications bill that dealt with a federal program that offers poor households a break on phone bills.

Brown said many of her constituents benefited from the service.

"Getting rid of Lifeline?" she asked. "You want me to vote to get rid of Lifeline?"

Ali said he and his clients hadn't decided yet which side of the issue they were on.

According to a summary of the meeting, Brown sounded nervous on the tape. She had already gone on the record in support of Lifeline. "You got sweat coming out my . . . how 'bout my ass is sweaty," she told Ali.

A month later, Ali again tried to line up votes, on a controversial measure to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. The legislation was strongly backed by Republicans and universally opposed by Democrats.

Though that made it an odd choice for Ali to use as a lure, it also may have meant his payments would be unlikely to influence the outcome of a vote.

On May 23, 2011, Ali called Brown to say he wanted "a no vote on this."

Brown readily agreed.

"I'll take care of you," Ali said.

Next, he called Waters. "I need your help on this," he said. "I need a no vote."

To critics of the sting, Ali's pitch to legislators on something they would likely have done anyway reflected a weakness in the operation. One source close to Kane called that approach "lunacy."

At any rate, Ali ended the meeting with a promise.

"When I come up this afternoon," he said, "I'll bring something for you."

‘IS TWO ENOUGH?’

RONALD WATERS, VANESSA BROWN

MAY 23, 2011

A few hours later, Ali was in Brown's state House office. Behind a closed door, he handed her an envelope with $2,000.

Brown counted the bills. "Yo, good looking . . . Ooo-wee."

Later that night, Ali waited for Waters at the Hilton in downtown Harrisburg. When Waters drove up, the lobbyist got into his vehicle. "Let's take a ride around the block," Ali said. "There's too many people in there."

Ali said he needed a no vote on the voter ID bill, known as House Bill 934.

After a bit more conversation, Ali got down to business.

"Look here," Ali said. He began to count out $2,000 in cash.

Before the meeting ended, Waters told Ali: "I appreciate this, man. This was great looking out for me, brother."

"Ron," Ali said, "you know I always look out, man. I just need a no vote on House Bill 934."

A month later, the House approved H.B. 934 along the way to its final passage. Every Democrat voted against it. Brown and Waters were among them.

TRAFFIC COURT AND GOLD

THOMASINE TYNES | MAY 27, 2011

Waters and Brown knew the president judge of Traffic Court at the time, Thomasine Tynes, and both placed calls to her on Ali's behalf.

On May 27, 2011, Brown introduced Ali to Tynes in the judge's office in Philadelphia. Brown got to the point: Ali was there to talk about obtaining a collections contract on outstanding tickets for driving violations.

They agreed to meet for dinner, and set a date for June 10, 2011.

During that meeting, at a Philadelphia restaurant, Ali again made a pitch for a contract.

Tynes said she would pass on his request to the real power in the Traffic Court system, the administrative judge.

Should he land a contract, Ali said, he would remember those who helped him.

Then the conversation turned to a new topic: how the judge liked gold. Ali asked whether she would like for him to bring her an ounce of gold? Tynes was agreeable.

A few days later, Tynes instructed him to submit a written proposal for the contract.

Later that summer, on Aug. 10, 2011, Ali reserved a table at the Palm for a follow-up meeting. A proposal for the collection business was pending.

Ali handed Tynes a jewelry box with a silver charm bracelet inside and said, "Here is to our plans for the future, and I brought you a little token of our appreciation for helping negotiate this Traffic Court contract."

The price tag: $2,052.

"What did you bring?" Tynes replied. "Oh, my God, I don't believe you. Oh my goodness . . . I've never had nothing like this."

There was more, Ali said. He told Tynes that if he landed the collection contract, "we would count you in as an equal. This is just you and I."

Ali thought the contract could bring in about $50,000 a month in revenue.

They ordered drinks.

"To making money together," Ali said.

"To making money," Tynes responded.

Almost three months after that toast, Tynes called Ali. She told him she didn't like accepting gifts and asked how much it cost.

"Let me know," she said over the phone. "I have a check already made up."

Tynes told The Inquirer Ali gave her the bracelet as a birthday present as the two met for lunch in June 2011. The investigative summaries of the meeting at which Ali gave her the bracelet show the gift was made in August. The notes make no mention of her birthday, which was two months before the meeting.

Tynes did not return phone calls Saturday.

In previous interviews, Tynes provided evolving accounts of what she did with the bracelet. At first, she said she mailed it back. Then she said she had obtained cashier's checks to pay Ali back but could not find his address. Finally, she said she had recently found the bracelet in her safe-deposit box.

'I GOT THE TWO FOR YOU'

MICHELLE BROWNLEE | JUNE 15, 2011

Brownlee had her doubts about Ali. She was the one who had told Bishop she suspected he was an informant.

But on the night of June 15, 2011, Ali reported to investigators in the case that he saw her at a Harrisburg restaurant, and that she said she was in need of money. That conversation was not recorded.

In a recorded follow-up call that same evening, Ali told Brownlee: "I got the two for you. Is that enough?"

"Yeah, for right now, yeah," she said.

Ali met Brownlee at 10 p.m. at Cafe Fresco, where she was dining with another legislator.

"Hey, let's take a walk," Ali said.

"Let me walk on the other side of you," Ali told Brownlee, "cuz it's right here. I put it in a napkin for you."

"Oh, OK," Brownlee said.

The napkin concealed $2,000 in cash.

After the exchange, they returned to the restaurant for their meal. Among other things, they discussed the pending voter-identification legislation, and Brownlee said she opposed it.

Several weeks later, Ali met with Brownlee, and the two talked business.

"How do you see our group benefiting from our relationship with you?" he asked her.

There were some issues they could "come together" on and others they wouldn't, she replied.

Ali told her he was supporting a bill dealing with tax liens and she informed him she sat on the committee that was considering the legislation. She told him she would give him the first draft of the bill.

"I'm giving it to you," she said, and to "do whatever ya'll do . . . amendments, suggestions, however it's going to work."

Brownlee said she would take any suggestions he had to the committee chair.

In early March, Brownlee said she could not recall accepting any money from Ali. Brownlee, 57, did not respond to requests for comment last week.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

RONALD WATERS | APRIL 23, 2012

 As debate has flared over the sting, Attorney General Kane has pointed out that Ali made his last tape eight months before she took office in January 2013.

She said she was being unfairly blamed for not pursuing an investigation that she characterized as dead well before she took office.

The operation's supporters say Ali was running out of possible targets in his immediate circle. In a July 2012 memo then-Deputy Attorney General Frank G. Fina sent to his bosses, he also said he had decided to dramatically lower Ali's profile for a time out of fear that Ali's secret role had leaked out.

After a suitable passage of time with Ali lying low, Fina recommended, the office could up the ante and install Ali in a fancy office in Harrisburg, staffed with agents and equipped with cameras and microphones, to lure in even more lawmakers.

That never happened. His proposal languished, apparently unaddressed.

Ali made his last tape on April 23, 2012. He was back in Waters' district office. In the conversation, Waters remarked that Ali's BMW looked like one from the movie The Usual Suspects, which tells the tale of five career criminals.

Haven't seen it, Ali told the legislator.

Ali offered a belated birthday greeting.

"You are a day older, a day wiser, a day more handsome, too," he said.

"You say all the right things," Waters replied.

Ali then asked, "Just us, right?"

He handed Waters an envelope containing $1,000 and said it was for his birthday.

Waters laughed. "Thank you, my brother, I appreciate it."

Ali had a request. A sister of a friend had applied for a city job. Waters said he would put in a word for her.

Ali handed him another envelope with another $1,000. A down payment, he said.

Waters laughed.

Ali said to make sure it was all there.

The government's recording picked up the sound of someone counting money.


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy

Inquirer staff writers Mark Fazlollah and Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.

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