UNFAZED: With lawmakers accused of accepting cash still on the job, life in Harrisburg goes on as normal, mostly.

Posted: April 07, 2014

HARRISBURG - On the last day of the workweek before legislators returned to their districts, four Philadelphia Democrats who reportedly took envelopes of cash from a lobbyist were on the job, doing the people's business.

Rep. Michelle Brownlee, who sources say got $2,000, stepped to her usual seat on the House floor.

Rep. Vanessa Brown, who accepted $4,000, according to investigative documents, stood smiling and chatting with colleagues, her arm on their backs.

Rep. Ronald Waters, who collected multiple payments totaling $7,650, according to sources, strode through the Rotunda. "There are at least two sides to every story," he told a reporter, declining to offer his own.

Rep. Louise Bishop, who sources say took $1,500, was at her desk in her office. "She has no comment," a receptionist said.

In the Capitol, life largely goes on as normal for the four lawmakers, who allegedly were captured on tape in an undercover sting but face no criminal charges after Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane quashed the investigation.

To outsiders, it seems preposterous: Four public officials reportedly caught taking thousands of dollars, at work as if nothing had happened.

"It's completely outrageous," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the watchdog and policy group.

On the House floor Wednesday, no lawmaker rose to ask that the four resign, to demand their swift expulsion or express a personal sense of outrage. Instead, legislators welcomed a delegation of visiting pharmacists and applauded middle-school students who drew anti-bullying posters.

House Democratic and Republican leaders acted to try to prevent future wrongdoing. The Bipartisan Management Committee adopted a new rule that immediately bans members from accepting cash gifts from lobbyists and others who have an interest in government business.

The undercover informant in the aborted sting was Philadelphia lobbyist Tyron Ali, who by cooperating escaped from 2,088 counts of fraud related to a day-care center he owns in Logan.

He has declined to comment, and his whereabouts are unknown.

On the House floor, as legislators trickled in on Wednesday morning, Brownlee, 57, sat alone, intently checking her cellphone.

When she looked up, she faced the Apotheosis of Pennsylvania, the giant mural behind the speaker's rostrum that exalts William Penn, Ben Franklin, George Meade, and other famous sons of the state.

Above, the ceiling is a swirl of gold leaf, the bronze chandeliers so big and bright that it takes a week to change the lightbulbs. In a hall hang portraits of all the speakers of the House, including those who have gone to prison for corruption.

Brown, 47, arrived on the floor in a sparkly green sweater, happy to talk with people who stopped by her desk. If she were under stress, it didn't show.

She declined to answer questions about the sting from a reporter who visited her office. Later, House Democrats issued a news release announcing she had hosted a health briefing convened by Women in Government.

"It was an honor to be elected to a state leadership role with the group, and I am proud of the quality program they offered," Brown said in the release.

Earlier, Brown's lawyer said she had done nothing wrong.

Bishop, 80, has said she didn't know Ali and never accepted cash or gifts. Brownlee has said she did not recall taking anything. Waters, 64, has said Ali may have given him something for his birthday, but he could not recall details.

It's a peculiar situation, the hours of tape documenting wrongdoing that the attorney general has described as criminal, but no charges filed and probably none to come. It has created a certain awkwardness in daily interactions among House members.

"It's not like you run the other way, or that you won't talk to these members about legislation . . . ," said Rep. Mike Vereb, a Montgomery County Republican. "We've just got to ask the public to have confidence that when we as legislators have all the facts, we'll take the necessary action to reform."

On March 16, The Inquirer reported that Kane had shut down a long-running sting that ensnared the legislators along with city Traffic Court President Thomasine Tynes, who acknowledged that Ali gave her a $2,052 Tiffany bracelet. Kane said the investigation was poorly run and possibly tainted by racial targeting.

People close to the inquiry said Kane killed a solid investigation that had caught fellow Democrats. Kane said the lawmakers had committed crimes, but she said the case was so botched it could not be prosecuted successfully.

The four who reportedly pocketed cash failed to report it on annual financial-disclosure forms as required by law. Those omissions may be considered false swearing to authorities, a crime punishable by up to one year in jail.

"If they want to do the public a service, based on the apparent level of evidence, they can save everyone a lot of time and heartbreak by resigning," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, the public-interest group.

None can be forced to quit. All are running for reelection. Only Brown faces a challenge in the May Democratic primary, where victory is tantamount to election.

The four labor in a legislature that is averse to disciplining its own and familiar with corruption among its members. Leaders in both parties have gone to prison in recent years.

Former Speaker John Perzel, a Republican, was paroled in February, and former Speaker Bill DeWeese, a Democrat, was released in March. They were among two dozen legislators, former legislators, and staffers convicted in investigations undertaken by the Attorney General's Office beginning in 2007.

Last week there were signs the House Ethics Committee was moving toward launching its own inquiry.

Democrats say they are concerned the committee is moving too fast - and suspicious that their Republican counterparts may try to capitalize politically.

Republicans counter that the committee received a formal complaint from a citizen, which requires a preliminary inquiry, and that moving swiftly is crucial: The House's reputation is at stake.

"The institution is under attack," said House Republicans spokesman Steve Miskin. "The concern is that the institution gets painted by a broad brush because of the alleged actions of a few."

The last time the House disciplined a member was 40 years ago, in 1975, when it voted to expel Rep. Leonard Sweeney. The Pittsburgh Democrat had refused to quit after being convicted of taking part in an insurance scam.

"If they shrug their shoulders and say, 'There's no legal case, what can we do?' then something's broken," said Brett Wilmot, associate director of the Villanova University Ethics Program.

It's important that legislatures police themselves, that they investigate and act if members broke rules, even if the behavior did not result in charges, he said.

"Some of the basic stuff here, you don't need an ethicist," Wilmot said. "That's really unworthy behavior by our representatives, and if they don't get it, the citizens do."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

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