Kane, Williams and the sting with staying power

Posted: April 15, 2014

A BIG, RED coffee mug sits on the desk of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane bearing the message: "Keep Calm and Carry On."

I notice it during a news conference in her office late last week as Kane, seated at a long table across the room, works on regaining the upper hand in the complex, controversial Philadelphia sting case.

Three things strike me:

* Kane's prior news conference on the case was in a large media room down the hall, not her inner sanctum; this is clearly a venue choice suggesting just who's boss.

* She calls the conference right after a Dauphin County judge releases nearly 1,000 pages of previously sealed stuff on the case, ensuring that no reporter has time to review the documents.

* If she ever does win the upper hand on this issue, it'll be by keeping calm - and carrying on.

And that could take time.

For even after the document dump, puzzling parts to this bizarre, evidently unending tale remain.

A sting started in 2010 caught five Philly Dems - including four state lawmakers - on tape taking cash or gifts from an undercover informant who, according to details released last week, bribed as many as eight lawmakers for votes on various issues.

The case has gone unprosecuted.

Those who ran it under three Republican attorneys general say they didn't bring charges because they were building a bigger, broader case (perhaps creatively seeking to reduce the size of the Legislature).

Kane, a Democrat, says it was horribly run, too flawed and weak to support criminal charges.

It ran under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, acting Attorney General Bill Ryan briefly in 2011, and appointed Attorney General Linda Kelly from May 2011 to January 2013, when Kane took office.

Kane's been hammered on multiple issues related to the case, especially her personally hiring prominent Philly defense/libel attorney Richard A. Sprague.

Now, nearly a month after the Inquirer broke the story, it features Kane vs. fellow Democrat and Philly D.A. Seth Williams.

Williams says that the sting should have been prosecuted, and that Kane smeared his office - which now employs the two prosecutors and the agent who ran it - by incorrectly claiming that it selectively targeted African-Americans.

All those named as caught on tape are black. Kane says that 95 percent of recordings involved African-Americans.

So we're down to playground stuff.

Kane tells Williams to put up or shut up: Take the case, she says.

Bring it, says Williams.

He's asking for the whole file, all internal memos and emails, for a "review."

He seems well-positioned. If he brings charges, he one-ups Kane. If he doesn't, he blames her.

Stay tuned for further back-and-forth bluster.

Meanwhile, we learn of missing money - $32,600 in "unaccounted funds," tax dollars given to the undercover informant (or not) for who knows what.

Kane's office says it's investigating.

I'd note that this dough's missing for years, suggesting that the Attorney General's Office isn't exactly tightly run, and raising questions regarding other investigations.

Plus, there's still no public confirmation that federal prosecutors told Kane's people that the sting case was, as one insider puts it, "a bag of s---."

Kane's folks say feds don't comment on investigations and, since the informant works or worked undercover for the feds, don't want to risk ruining other cases.

But virtually everything involving elective office is political. You'd think that perhaps Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder might help someone touted as a potential Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in 2016.

Just sayin'.

(Less than three weeks before the sting thing broke, a Harper Poll showed Kane with nearly double the support of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, 47 percent to 24 percent, if she challenges incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.)

Also, if Kane has evidence that a senior state prosecutor ordered the agent running the sting to focus solely on African-Americans, why isn't that prosecutorial misconduct and/or a violation of civil rights?

Why isn't someone recommending or filing action in that regard?

Finally, on the broad issue of how to handle any case, every prosecutor has discretion; the truth here likely lies somewhere between positions taken by Kane and Williams.

It all could come down to who's better at keeping calm and carrying on.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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