At the center of the sting: A look at Tyron Ali

Prosecutors say Tyron Ali used the Logan Child Care and Resource Center on North Broad Street as a front for fraud.
Prosecutors say Tyron Ali used the Logan Child Care and Resource Center on North Broad Street as a front for fraud. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 31, 2014

Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams never liked Tyron Ali.

It was a gut instinct, based on what he saw and how the lobbyist approached him at political events.

"He was one of those braggadocio guys, showing money and checks," Williams said. " 'I can help you. I'm helping people.' I told him, 'No, man.' "

Five Philadelphia Democrats did not share Williams' distaste and eventually were recorded on tape by Ali as they accepted cash or gifts from the lobbyist-turned-government informant, sources say.

Today the roiling controversy triggered by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane's decision to quash the undercover investigation has focused attention on the man at its center.

By now everyone knows Ali slipped from beneath a mountain of fraud charges in exchange for his efforts to ensnare corrupt politicians.

But who is the man the government chose as its key informant?

He's wily, determined, fast-talking, someone who can squeeze out of a tight spot. He speaks with the clipped diction of a college professor and wears the uniform of a high-end banker: pin-striped suit, cuff links, a Masonic Lodge pin on his lapel.

He has been the target of two grand juries that examined his alleged criminal behavior. He has been sued repeatedly for debts by plaintiffs who won default judgments. He has been accused in civil court of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from people to whom he promised large returns.

Ali's lawyer, Robert J. Levant, said neither he nor his client would have any comment for this article.

Others find him fascinating: A guy who hung at the edges of politics, dropping names of elected officials, mostly Democrats, as if they were dollar bills, emerges at the heart of a sting scandal?

"I never really knew what he did for a living," said A. Bruce Crawley, a veteran public relations executive and founder of Philadelphia's African American Chamber of Commerce. "He wanted to be perceived as a person who was deeply involved in the political process."

Ali, 40, haunted the second floor of City Hall, looking for potential contacts, always around and always acting as if he knew more than he was telling, people who know him say.

When Mayor John F. Street and Mayor-elect Nutter led a salute to Sylvester Johnson at the Kimmel Center upon Johnson's retirement as police commissioner, Ali was there, too, shaking hands and mingling.

"At the end of the day," Ali told then-State Rep. Tony Payton's chief of staff during a 2011 lunch at Capital Grille, "the only thing we are really trying to do is find people we can work with."

Remembering the cannoli

Work with them he did, a genie seeking to fulfill wishes large and small.

When State Rep. Louise Bishop mentioned that a friend used to bring her cannoli, Ali said he would remember, because his wife was Italian. Four weeks later, when they met again, Ali brought her a box of the Italian desserts - leading to a discussion of the importance of relationships in politics and business.

Bishop was taped accepting a total of $1,500 from Ali, according to investigative documents.

Thomasine Tynes, the president judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court, told Ali how much she liked gold. He asked if she would like him to bring her an ounce - and later gave her a $2,052 bracelet.

Ali shopped at Boyds and Brooks Brothers, cruised in a Mercedes-Benz and a BMW, ate at Zanzibar Blue and Prime Rib. At lunch or dinner, he would pull a wallet from his breast pocket and flash a stack of bills - a habit that grew so annoying his friends told him to stop.

He always picked up the tab.

Ali loved the Palm on South Broad Street, where his caricature hangs on the wall with those of scores of local celebrities and politicians. He constantly bragged about having his picture there, among the political elite.

The people he met there did not know whom they were dealing with - and not just because he wore a wire. The guy who talked like a university scholar never got past high school.

In a biography submitted in an application for state grant money, Ali said he graduated from Bok Technical High School in South Philadelphia - though officials can find no record of that.

He falsely claimed to have an undergraduate degree from Temple University and to have completed two years at Temple Law School. In 2008 he listed his occupation as "attorney" when making a campaign donation.

Ali says he graduated from a Harvard University program in dispute resolution and earned a certificate in biochemistry from Cambridge University in England.

While he is routinely described as a lobbyist, his registration expired 15 months ago.

For all his obsession with politics, Ali is not a registered voter.

In May 2011, state police pulled him over in Chester County for drunken driving. Ali pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months' probation and $1,279 in costs and fines, which he paid.

He has been sued nine times in Philadelphia Municipal Court, including three times by the city government for nonpayment of water bills. He owes the city $20,187 in back taxes on four properties. Three more times, he has been sued in Common Pleas or federal court by people who say they lent or trusted him with hundreds of thousands of dollars he never repaid.

"He's a true con man," said Masoud Soroush, a Drexel University chemical-engineering professor who lent Ali nearly $320,000 for one of his ventures, the American Minority Credit Counseling Association.

The grand jury inquiry into his operation of a day-care center resulted in hundreds of charges. Prosecutors say Ali used the Logan Child Care and Resource Center on North Broad Street as a front to defraud taxpayers of money intended to provide meals for low-income children and seniors.

All told, according to court records, Ali is alleged to have taken at least $910,0000 - $430,000 from the state and $480,000 from individuals.

In April 2009, authorities charged him with 2,088 counts of forgery, conspiracy, theft, and related offenses connected to the child-care center.

'I didn't do it'

There has been debate about the scope of Ali's financial wrongdoing. In subsequent court filings, prosecutors said they believed the fraud was smaller.

"To the end, he swore to me he was completely honest," said Douglas Kissel, of Scotlandyard Security, who worked with Ali on two earlier businesses.

They reconnected at a political fund-raiser, and Ali told him the child-center finances were under scrutiny. He asked Kissel to help organize his argument of innocence.

"He said, 'The state is demanding all these things . . . and I didn't do it.' "

But Ali did not go to trial.

He hatched a deal with prosecutors to go undercover, telling them he could snag corrupt politicians. The government fitted him with a wire and sent him to meet with elected officials in Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

In October 2010, according to the Attorney General's Office, Ali began making recordings and plying legislators with cash.

Tom Corbett was attorney general. After Kane was elected in November 2012, she looked skeptically at the sting. She said that she believed Ali had credibility problems and that the investigation may have improperly targeted African American officials.

She shut it down. About eight months after she took office, she also dropped the charges against Ali.

On March 16, The Inquirer broke the news of those decisions, quoting people close to the case who said Kane squashed a solid investigation that caught fellow Democrats on tape accepting money and gifts. Kane countered that the inquiry was so botched that it could not be successfully prosecuted.

Today Ali is a free man, his whereabouts unknown.

Philadelphia lawyer Leon Silverman, who represented two people in lawsuits against Ali, said he was astounded the government used Ali as its agent - and then let him go.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I couldn't believe they would let a piece of vermin like this off the hook."

Gifts, grants, and contributions

Ali liked the collections business. At a 2011 meeting captured on tape, he implored Tynes to give him a contract to collect unpaid traffic fines in Philadelphia. Ten years earlier he had worked at St. Hill & Associates, a Philadelphia collection firm.

Kissel was a contractor there. In 2001, he and Ali started Receivables Management Group Inc., an agency that Kissel says never got off the ground. Another time, he said, Ali wanted to get a license to operate a food cart, but that didn't work out either.

Soon Ali started the nonprofit American Minority Credit Counseling Association, which was to help people restructure their mortgages to keep their homes.

In 2003 the company received a $22,000 grant from the state. Its one and only tax filing says that in 2006 the association provided free service to hundreds of people, spending $13,800 of the $22,500 it received in gifts, grants, and contributions.

Ali wanted the state to give him more money, and to help him hire someone to raise more. In a grant application, he laid out his plan to hire a fund-raiser to identify foundations, corporations, and people who could support the credit-counseling business financially.

The state turned him down. But Ali took in large amounts from other sources - people to whom he promised huge and quick returns in exchange for loans. When he did not pay them back, some filed suit to try to get their money back.

Soroush, the Drexel professor, sued in August 2009 after coming to believe that the nonprofit existed only to defraud people.

Soroush, introduced to Ali by a mutual friend, initially saw a chance to make money while helping people keep their homes. He made four loans to Ali totaling $319,120. Ali promised to pay him back in three months at 50 percent interest.

When Soroush sued, Ali filed a motion to freeze the lawsuit, saying the allegations against him were "the subject of an ongoing state criminal grand jury investigation." Ali intended to avoid testifying by invoking his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, he said in court papers.

Soroush eventually got back part of his money. But Ali and his credit association were not finished in court.

In November 2010, Rebecca West and West Insurance Agency of Philadelphia sued Ali and a man named Akio Bley. She said that in 2007 she gave $116,000 to Bley, a friend and financial adviser, to invest for her. Instead, she said, Bley bought securities in his own name and induced her to invest with Ali in his "fictitious organization."

Bley told her to write checks to him or Ali, claiming the money would be repaid with high interest. In 2011 the case was settled out of court.

Not everyone lost out dealing with Ali.

"I made money off of him," said Maasi Smith, a Philadelphia podiatrist. "Tyron was trying to save homes. He was trying to save people's homes and stop the foreclosures."

Smith said that he made two or three investments of about $2,500 each, and that Ali repaid him three months later at 50 percent interest. Smith said he testified before the grand jury that was investigating Ali and told the jurors that Ali always paid him back as promised.

"He has a good business mind, and he was smart," Smith said. "You always felt he was doing big things."

Day-care operation

By the time Rebecca West filed her lawsuit in 2010, Ali was in bigger trouble - indicted for using his Logan child-care center to "commit massive theft of taxpayer dollars," according to then-Attorney General Corbett.

The scam was simple: State regulations required Ali to provide accurate accounts of the costs of running the center and providing the meals. The state would then reimburse him through a deposit to the center's PNC Bank account. From those funds, Ali was to repay the companies that provided the meals to the center.

Almost immediately, state Education Department supervisor Susan Still told investigators, meal providers complained they were not being paid or that payments were late. She contacted the state comptroller's office to conduct an audit. When Ali's books did not add up, the comptroller called the Attorney General's Office, which opened an inquiry in June 2008.

Kissel, who was not involved in the day-care operation, said Ali told him he had paid the meal providers - twice in some cases.

"He showed me hundreds and hundreds of checks to his providers," Kissel said.

On Friday, the Department of Public Welfare shut down the day-care center, a day after a surprise inspection found violations that created a likelihood of an "immediate and serious danger to the life or health" of children there.

In December 2009, after an 18-month inquiry, state officials filed a criminal complaint that described "a vast amount of fraud perpetrated by Tyron Ali." Prosecutors said he took money from 2004 to 2008, submitting phony invoices and cooking up nearly 400 counterfeit documents.

For instance, Ali:

Paid $1,900 to Larnell Brown, who worked as his driver and prepared box lunches, but claimed reimbursement of $12,600.

Paid $2,050 for freelance work to Kentia Waters, communications director for State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, but submitted her fee as $8,100.

Gave his mother, Jennifer Ali Naclerio, a $1,500 check from Logan child care to help pay her $12,000 gas bill, though she was not a center employee.

Ali was arrested in 2009 by investigators who said he had written thousands of dollars' worth of checks to himself each month. The money went for fine restaurants, clothes, and travel - and to pay $1,500 worth of city parking tickets.

He was held in Dauphin County jail in lieu of $750,000 bail, though people remember him being back in Philadelphia afterward, saying the matter had been settled. In late 2010, Ali agreed to go undercover, returning to his life seemingly without interruption.

At his favored spot, the Palm, frequent diners can get their portraits on the wall in two ways: One is to cash in points earned through a loyalty program. The other is to be placed there at the management's discretion, as was done for Ali.

"Eighteen months ago, he came up to me at the Palm and told me, 'I can raise money for the NAACP. Whatever you guys need, I can help,' " said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, who dismissed the approach. "His salesmanship was too much. He went to other black organizations and did the same thing. He made a pest of himself over the last year and a half."


Inquirer.com

Five officials were caught on tape accepting cash or gifts. No one was prosecuted. Read all of The Inquirer's coverage of the sting that Attorney General Kathleen Kane stopped at www.inquirer.com/sting


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

Staff writers Angela Couloumbis and Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.

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