Lead prosecutor in sting case appears before ethics panel

Frank G. Fina, the lead prosecutor in the undercover sting investigation, spent nearly two hours behind closed doors Monday testifying before the House Committee on Ethics about the now-shuttered case that captured four Philadelphia legislators on tape accepting money.
Frank G. Fina, the lead prosecutor in the undercover sting investigation, spent nearly two hours behind closed doors Monday testifying before the House Committee on Ethics about the now-shuttered case that captured four Philadelphia legislators on tape accepting money. (JASON MINICK / Associated Press, file)
Posted: April 02, 2014

HARRISBURG - The lead prosecutor in an undercover sting investigation spent nearly two hours behind closed doors Monday testifying before the House Committee on Ethics about the now-shuttered case that captured four Philadelphia legislators on tape accepting money.

Frank G. Fina's appearance before the House panel was the clearest indication yet that the chamber was moving to launch its own inquiry into whether the four lawmakers broke ethics rules or engaged in illegal activity when they accepted cash or money orders from the sting's undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali.

Because the committee meets in secret, neither Fina nor the panel's chairman, Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks), would comment Monday.

"I can't even confirm or deny that we met," Petri said in an interview.

It was not clear Monday whether all of the committee's eight members attended Fina's presentation. The Committee on Ethics is the only one of the 26 panels in the House that has an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, and only Republicans were seen leaving the meeting.

Still, both Democratic and Republican House leaders have signaled their support for a formal investigation, saying last month that they would "make available sufficient resources" to ensure a thorough inquiry should the committee authorize one.

The committee's inquiry is expected to focus on the conduct of the House members, and not on state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane's controversial decision to shut down the undercover operation shortly after she took office last year. Kane has said that she reviewed the case and deemed it fatally flawed.

Though she has conceded that crimes were committed, she said the case could not be prosecuted successfully because it was poorly executed and possibly marred by racial targeting. The four Philadelphia legislators captured on tape are African American.

Fina has countered that the investigation was solid and carried out honorably. The lead agent in the case, Claude Thomas, has also denied that the sting targeted black lawmakers.

The Philadelphia legislators caught on tape during the sting were State Reps. Ron Waters, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee, and Louise Bishop. All are Democrats, as is Kane.

Bishop has denied receiving anything from Ali. Brownlee has said she does not recall accepting money. Waters has said he may have received something from Ali for his birthday, and Brown has declined to comment.

According to veteran House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer, the least severe penalty the committee could hand down would be a "letter of reproval" issued to a representative by the Ethics Committee alone.

Beyond that, Myer said, the committee could recommend a broad range of disciplinary actions to be taken by the full House - or even give the chamber a choice of penalties to impose.

The panel's options include recommending that the full House reprimand the legislators, censure them, and perhaps reduce their seniority or strip them of committee or leadership posts, or expel them.

According to Myer, the House last took disciplinary action against one of its members in 1975 when Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly voted to expel Rep. Leonard E. Sweeney, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, when he refused to resign even after his federal conviction for taking part in a ring that faked car crashes for insurance money.

Before that, Myer said, records show that the previous time the House ethics committee was called into service was in 1899.

The 1899 matter involved a request that the panel look into allegations involving the "corrupt solicitation of members of the House."

Myer said the Committee on Ethics had rarely convened because it typically stood aside when members faced criminal charges, so as not to muddy any prosecutions. If the criminal cases resulted in convictions, he said, the guilty officials - with the exception of Sweeney - had chosen to resign from office, rendering moot any need for the panel to work.

He said the committee might draw upon precedents in Congress to figure out how to carry out the review.

In Pennsylvania, he said, "this hadn't been done here in years and years and decades and decades."


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

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