Judge unseals documents in sting case

State Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane at a March 17 news conference explaining her decision to shut down the previous administration's sting investigation, calling it deeply flawed.
State Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane at a March 17 news conference explaining her decision to shut down the previous administration's sting investigation, calling it deeply flawed. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 12, 2014

A judge on Thursday made public a wealth of documents detailing the secret sting investigation that captured five Philadelphia Democrats on tape accepting money and gifts - and revealing a fierce behind-the-scenes legal fight about the undercover informant at the heart of the operation.

The records reveal that the operative, Philadelphia lobbyist Tyron B. Ali, said he had bribed numerous state representatives, who he said "engaged in public corruption through the sale of their votes for cash."

Ali claimed in the documents that seven state representatives took money as gifts or campaign contributions, two others accepted meals and beverages, and yet another received meals and baseball tickets.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said Thursday that the records, released by Dauphin County Court President Judge Todd A. Hoover, demonstrated that she made the right call in ending the probe after taking office in 2013.

"We said that we could not prosecute this case and it should not be prosecuted," said Kane, a Democrat.

Kane stood by her office's assessment that the sting was poorly managed, was possibly tainted by racial profiling, and could not have been successfully prosecuted.

She has also said that the case was fatally undermined by an agreement to drop all charges against Ali, 40, who became an informant to win leniency after his 2009 arrest in a $430,000 fraud.

On Thursday, she acknowledged the public scrutiny she has faced since The Inquirer broke news of the secret sting last month and revealed her decision to end it without bringing any charges.

"I have thick skin and I can take the criticism," she said.

Supporters of the investigation said it was carefully executed and should have been allowed to move forward. They have adamantly denied any racial profiling.

According to interviews and investigative documents, four state representatives and a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge, all Democrats, were caught on tape accepting money or gifts.

Sources say the lawmakers are Rep. Louise Bishop, who took $1,500; Rep. Michelle Brownlee, who accepted $2,000; Rep. Vanessa Brown, who was given $5,000; and Rep. Ron Waters, who accepted $8,250. The judge was Thomasine Tynes, who has said she accepted a $2,052 Tiffany bracelet from Ali. Several other representatives took campaign contributions.

Bishop has denied taking money from Ali. Brownlee said she could not recall accepting anything from him. Brown had declined to comment, but denied wrongdoing through her attorney. Waters said he might have received something from Ali for his birthday.

Rare glimpse

Public records in the case were sealed several years ago after Ali went undercover.

The court records made public Thursday afternoon were unsealed after appeals from nearly a dozen news organizations, including The Inquirer. The media companies argued that there was no longer any need to keep the records sealed because the investigation was long over. They also said the public had a right to know what happened in the state's courts.

The documents provided the broad outlines and many details of the 19-month sting operation first disclosed by The Inquirer on March 16.

The filings offered a rare glimpse into the deep mistrust and rancor that existed between Kane's incoming administration and Ali, who had worked as an undercover operative for Kane's predecessors for nearly two years.

Ali's lawyer argued that Kane should not be making decisions about his fate. And Kane didn't think Ali should be allowed to walk away from hundreds of charges in a separate fraud case all because he had cooperated in the sting - an investigation she found to be deeply flawed to begin with.

The 58 documents, spanning nearly a thousand pages, provided some fresh information on contentious issues.

Among the revelations were that in a move to force Kane from any role in the case, Ali's lawyer, Robert J. Levant, asserted that Ali had given $8,000 in cash to a campaign operative in 2009 who later became a key aide to Kane in her 2012 run for the top prosecutor's job.

Paragraphs struck

Levant said Kane had a conflict in the case. Kane has said that she had only a distant relationship with the campaign supporter and that Ali's allegations were uncorroborated.

Along with releasing the documents, Hoover struck from a key legal pleading almost all of Kane's arguments - 15 of 17 paragraphs - in what amounted to her defense of her handling of the sting.

Those paragraphs were included in a motion, filed Monday, in which Kane said she supported the release of the material.

Hoover, however, said in an opinion released Thursday that almost all of the assertions in her filing were irrelevant to the sealing issue. On Tuesday, sources say, Kane apologized to Hoover for the filing and asked for permission to redo it. Hoover did not permit her to refile.

Among other statements in those paragraphs, Kane wrote that Hoover had issued an order directing her to drop 2,088 fraud counts against Ali.

In fact, Kane chose to dismiss the charges, doing so in November 2013, after she concluded that she had no choice but to abide by a deal struck with Ali before she took office.

In another section of her filing that was struck by Hoover, Kane cited an order the judge issued last year to keep the case secret.

In October 2013, Kane had argued for such secrecy, saying to make the fraud case public would reveal "sensitive information about an ongoing criminal investigations."

That appears to be a reference to both Ali's undercover work in the sting and other assistance he is known to have provided to federal law enforcement authorities.

Nowhere in any of the filings does she disclose to the judge that in May 2013, her office produced a report deeming the sting investigation deeply flawed.

In the October 2013 filing, Kane suggested that the sting case might lead to prosecutions, saying "criminal charges in the corruption cases" may still need to be "brought and resolved."

Hoover kept the seal in place, only to lift it Thursday. He ruled in response to a motion filed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

As controversy has flared over the sting, Kane has been highly critical of Ali. She has called the agreement signed by former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank G. Fina to strike all charges "the deal of the century." Just Wednesday, Kane released a report showing that Ali had spent $91,000 in public money while undercover. Her report noted that he had spent $60 on a bow tie and $1,474 on cigars.

In documents made public Thursday, Levant, Ali's lawyer, portrayed him far more positively, saying he had worked tirelessly to ferret out corruption.

In one document, submitted under seal to the court last fall, Levant said that his client had worked "nearly full-time" as an informant for the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

"Mr. Ali dispatched his responsibilities with a determination, professionalism, and effectiveness that earned him not only the respect and gratitude of a staff of career prosecutors, but also the right to claim the consideration agreed to by the OAG - a dismissal of all charges against him without prejudice," he wrote.

'Grave risk'

In addition, Levant said, Ali, while working for another unspecified agency, had also been "providing information and serving as an agent in an operational capacity."

He added, "One of those investigations involved threats against public safety and posed a grave risk to Mr. Ali's own physical safety."

When Kane was questioning the deal with Ali, Levant filed a motion saying that Hoover should disqualify her and her office "from all matters concerning him."

Among other issues, Levant contended that Kane faced a conflict of interest because of Ali's involvement, before becoming an informant, in illegal campaign donations.

The filing alleges that Ali gave $8,000 in cash to a 2009 campaign in which a campaign operative later went to work to assist Kane in her 2012 run for attorney general. In a pleading unsealed Thursday, Kane said she faced no conflict.


> Inquirer.com

Read court documents and find previous coverage of the aborted sting at www.inquirer.

com/sting


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821215-854-4821  @CraigRMcCoy

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Jennifer Lin, Dylan Purcell, and Jeremy Roebuck.

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