Ethical questions in trips revealed in corruption sting

Lobbyist Tyron B. Ali was working as a confidential informant.
Lobbyist Tyron B. Ali was working as a confidential informant.
Posted: April 22, 2014

When Philadelphia was deep in the winter of 2011, State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown was in a far warmer place - the Waldorf Astoria's Naples Grande Beach Resort in Florida.

Days after her return from the Sunshine State, Brown told a local lobbyist about the trip, a three-day event organized by the nonprofit Women in Government Foundation with drug company backing.

That lobbyist was government informant Tyron B. Ali. He secretly recorded Brown as part of an undercover investigation run by the state Attorney General's Office.

During that taped chat, according to sources and investigative documents, Ali handed Brown $500, one of a series of cash payments he gave her totaling $5,000.

The furor spurred by Inquirer news reports of Ali's payments to Brown and three other Democratic state lawmakers from Philadelphia prompted the state legislature to swiftly ban cash gifts.

But as shown by Brown's unguarded comments that Ali recorded on March 9, 2011, lobbyists don't use just cash to generate good will. They can also bestow trips and campaign contributions.

John J. Contino, former director of the state Ethics Commission, said Pennsylvania had failed to put reasonable controls on junkets by lawmakers.

Contino said the legislature should look at further restrictions, such as adopting a dollar limit on how much "hospitality" any lawmaker can accept or imposing specific bans on spending on liquor or tickets to games or shows.

State Sen. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican from a district that covers Lancaster County and chairman of the State Government Committee, said his panel could go farther than banning cash gifts. He said the legislature could ban or limit all manner of freebies - including lodging, food, and transportation costs.

At the same time, Smucker said, perhaps some travel should be permitted in cases in which an event had a clear legislative purpose.

"I think there is value to going to a conference to interact and see what other states are doing," he said. "You can come away with good ideas."

In Pennsylvania, it's perfectly legal for lawmakers to accept free travel and the rest, providing they disclose the largesse if it exceeds certain amounts. If they fail to report, they can be charged with a misdemeanor - a rare event - or fined $250.

After state Attorney General Kathleen M. Kane shut down the undercover operation involving Ali without bringing charges, she endorsed forbidding cash gifts to lawmakers.

Kane said the sting was poorly conceived and managed - and possibly tainted by racial profiling. Supporters of the investigation say Kane needlessly ended a probe that had gathered solid evidence against the four state legislators and could have continued to build cases against other targets.

A review of Brown's financial-disclosure forms shows she never reported under "gifts" the cash that sources say she accepted from Ali. Under the "hospitality" section, her disclosure report made no mention of the trip to Florida.

Brown, shown at the Florida conference in photographs posted on the group's website, declined to comment for this article.

Previously, she declined to answer questions about Ali. Through her lawyer, she has said she did nothing wrong.

In summer 2011, Women in Government put on another three-day conference, in Pittsburgh. That time, the focus was on health care and energy issues; funding came from pharmaceutical and power companies.

Brown, who represents a West Philadelphia district, and five other Pennsylvania lawmakers took part in that gathering, according to the participant list. Another in the group was State Rep. Michelle Brownlee, a North Philadelphia Democrat who sources say took $2,000 in cash from Ali in 2011.

Brownlee did not respond to requests for comment for this article. She has said she did not recall accepting money from Ali.

Under Pennsylvania law, lawmakers must report all trips paid by any one donor if the benefit - including airfare, hotel and meals - exceeds $650 in a single year.

The rooms at the Naples Grande Beach Resort cost about $300 a night at discounted rates in 2011, according to the hotel. Women attending the organizations' conferences often share rooms, the group says.

In Pittsburgh, rooms at the conference hotel went for about $200 a night in 2011, the hotel there says.

Along with meals and the cost of any transportation, it appears likely Brown's expenses would have crested the $650 figure.

Brownlee's financial-disclosure form does not list any benefit received from Women in Government. It's unclear whether the cost of her participation in the Pittsburgh conference would have required her to report the trip.

Lawmakers from other states say Women in Government provided expense payments in recent years that easily exceeded $650 when legislators left their home states to attend events.

Face-to-face contact

The Florida conference was focused on fighting diabetes. Its agenda listed 10 sponsors, all from pharmaceutical companies. Records show at least eight of the 10 were registered lobbyists for the drug firms.

Founded in 1988, Women in Government says its goal is to assist the some 1,800 women currently serving in state legislatures. According to its website, the group "provides its members with full legislative scholarships. These scholarships provide conference participants with opportunities to hear presentations from nationally noted expert speakers."

Ethics experts say a goal of lobbyists in sponsoring these trips is to have face-to-face contact with lawmakers.

"It's not a new trick, but it's very effective," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's totally a way to soften up people.

"People will always listen because they want to be invited to the next conference."

Not technically correct

Women in Government makes no secret of its close relationship with lobbyists. Its interim executive director, Dyan Alexander, was a government-affairs director for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals. She referred all questions to her board chair, Helen Miller, a Democratic state representative in Iowa.

Miller said corporations sponsor the group's conference because the "industry has the money."

She said she did not know what share of the organization's budget came from private industry. The group's public records don't provide a breakdown.

Miller said it was not unusual for drug companies to contribute heavily to the Florida conference because its focus was on diabetes.

"Who would sponsor that?" she said. "You wouldn't get an energy company."

Told of Pennsylvania State Rep. Brown's recorded statements that her Florida trip was paid for by a drug firm, Miller said the statements were not technically correct.

She said the pharmaceutical companies gave money to Women in Government for the conference. Her organization then wrote the checks to cover lawmakers' expenses, she said.

'Unfair to taxpayers'

With Ali's tape running, Brown told him one pharmaceutical company official at the 2011 conference in Florida told her, "We give $1,000 a month to our candidates," according to the attorney general's summary of her recorded conversation with Ali three days after the conference.

According to the investigative document, Brown told Ali she believed the firm was Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., Japan's largest drug company and maker of the blockbuster anti-diabetes drug Actos.

Campaign-finance records show Takeda has never made a donation to Brown. The records show one round of campaign-giving by the firm to a handful of other Pennsylvania state lawmakers in 2010.

Asked whether Takeda officials could discuss campaign contributions with lawmakers at conferences, a company spokeswoman did not address the question. She did say Takeda officials were "committed to the highest ethical standards."

In an interview, Craig Holman of the Washington watchdog group Public Citizen, said lobbyists should not discuss campaign donations during conferences run by nonprofits.

When that happens, he said, taxpayers are "subsidizing in part the corporate electioneering agenda." This, he said, was "unfair to taxpayers and should be explicitly prohibited by law."

Miller said she could not explain Brown's remark. She said she knew of no lobbyist who had offered campaign money at any of the conferences she had attended.

Miller said she would not have accepted such a contribution. "I raise my money right here [in Iowa]," she said.

In January, Brown was selected as the Pennsylvania state director of Women in Government and was listed as a participant in the group's annual state director's conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix that month, the organization's records show.

Her public financial statement for 2014 is due next spring.

'High attendance rates'

As Ali made his secret recordings, he picked up yet another conversation about a conference for lawmakers.

According to an official summary of Ali's undercover activities, State Rep. Rosita Youngblood of Northwest Philadelphia also was recorded talking about an out-of-state nonprofit session.

In her case, it was a gathering, also in Florida, of the National Foundation of Women Legislators, of which she is an officer.

She spoke about it during a day in fall 2010 on which Ali handed her a $250 money order and $150 in cash, according to the summary. She deposited the money as a campaign donation and listed the contributions on her campaign-finance report, as required by law.

Though Youngblood attended the group's 2010 Florida conference, she said she did not believe she had received any reimbursement from the organization, based in Washington.

Her financial-disclosure form for 2010 does not list any financial help from the group.

The National Foundation says it pays the expenses of most lawmakers attending its conferences. That generosity, it said on its website, "garners high attendance rates at all conference events."

For participating lawmakers, according to Alex Rich, a spokesman for the National Foundation, the group generally pays about $500 in airfare and about $300 in total hotel charges for a two-day event, as well as meals.

In addition to its corporate sponsors, the National Foundation says it receives funding from other nonprofit groups. Among its supporters is the National Rifle Association.

Youngblood has been active in the National Foundation for more than a decade. About five years ago, she served for a year as its president.

"It's a worthy organization to belong to," she said.


mfazlollah@phillynews.com

215-854-5831

@mfazlollah

Inquirer staff writers Dylan Purcell and Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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