Probe of scuttled Pennsylvania investigation into Democrat corruption demanded
According to a report at the Washington Times, a watchdog group called the Committee of Seventy is calling for an independent counsel investigation of Democrat Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s decision to shut down the prosecution of four Democrat legislators suspected of taking bribes. The evidence in the case was quite strong, including tapes of conversations that are difficult to portray as anything other than politicians cheerfully accepting payoffs, while the reasons given for abandoning these cases seem weak, or even false, to critics.
“The public must be assured that a full and fair review has been conducted by someone without any personal or political interest in the outcome,” said Committee of Seventy President and CEO Zack Stalberg. “There are also extremely disturbing allegations that demand an independent, non-partisan investigation to determine if any laws were violated.”
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said she was shutting down the three-year-old sting investigation because the case was poorly managed, investigators didn’t rely on traditional police techniques and there was evidence of racial targeting. All those accused of taking money are blacks and members of the Democratic Party.
Eyebrows have been raised because the reasons cited by Kane don’t stack up very well against the mountain of evidence accumulated by the sting, which began in 2010 when the current Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, was the Attorney General. Last weekend, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a review of the evidence Kane is sweeping aside:
Those who favored the sting believe Kane killed a solid investigation, led by experienced prosecutor Frank G. Fina, that had ensnared several public officials and had the potential to capture more. They said they were outraged at Kane’s allegation that race had played a role in the case.
Before Kane ended the investigation, sources familiar with the inquiry said, prosecutors amassed 400 hours of audio and videotape that documented at least four city Democrats taking payments in cash or money orders, and in one case a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet.
Typically, the payments made at any one time were relatively modest – ranging from $500 to $2,000 – but most of those involved accepted multiple payments, people familiar with the investigation said. In some cases, the payments were offered in exchange for votes or contracts, they said.
Sources with knowledge of the sting said the investigation made financial pitches to both Republicans and Democrats, but only Democrats accepted the payments.
The investigation’s undercover operative was a little-known lobbyist, Tyron B. Ali, 40, who agreed to wear a wire and tape the officials to win favorable treatment after his arrest in a $430,000 fraud case, the newspaper has learned.
In an unusual move, the Attorney General’s Office then dropped the fraud charges secretly, under seal, last fall.
At least one of the officials targeted in the sting operation admits to accepting her “gift” from the lobbyist, while others made denials that are rather difficult to square with the evidence in the case:
People with knowledge of the investigation said those caught on tape included former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, who acknowledged that Ali gave her the bracelet.
Four state lawmakers took money, the sources said. State Rep. Ronald G. Waters accepted multiple payments totaling $7,650; State Rep. Vanessa Brown took $4,000; State Rep. Michelle Brownlee received $3,500; and State Rep. Louise Bishop took $1,500, said people with knowledge of the investigation.
Bishop denied receiving money. Brownlee said she couldn’t recall taking a payment, and Brown declined to discuss the matter.
The conversations recorded on these tapes “were often blunt,” according to the Inquirer’s sources. You’ll never guess which issue one of the alleged bribes was related to:
In May 2011, Ali went to Brown’s office and handed her an envelope with $2,000, according to people who have reviewed a transcript of a tape Ali made on that day.
As Brown accepted the money, they said, she put it in her purse and said: “Yo, good looking and Ooowee. . . . Thank you twice.”
After he gave Brown the money, Ali urged her to vote against a bill that would require voters to show identification at the polls, the sources said.
Brown voted against the measure – as did every other Democrat in the House.
The Inquirer relates a lively tale of Kane’s decision to drop the investigation, which includes a thumbs-down recommendation from a (Republican) D.A. who didn’t actually look at the evidence, and a claim that the lead agent in the case told Kane he was specifically ordered to ignore white politicians while targeting members of the Legislative Black Caucus… a statement the agent, who is himself black, says he never made. The lead prosecutor on the case, who has an impressive record of pursuing corruption charges against Republicans and Democrats alike, accused Attorney General Kane of using a “desperate smear” of racism as an excuse to shut down the investigation.
There’s a bit more to Kane’s side of the story than dubious allegations of racial discrimination:
In the view of Kane’s allies, she rightly shut down a flawed investigation – one that federal prosecutors decided not to pursue as well. In a statement, Kane’s office said federal law enforcement officials – it did not specify from which agency – had pronounced the case “flawed and not prosecutable.”
Her office also raised the issue of entrapment, saying the investigation had targeted individuals without sufficient suspicion that they were predisposed to corruption. And it said the sting often failed to explicitly link payments to a quid pro quo of official action.
As a consequence, the office said, the investigation was marred by a lack of “quality control” that would have made the cases difficult to win in court.
“Is the acceptance of cash alarming? Absolutely,” said one person close to Kane. “But you’ve got to think: I’ve got to try this case.”
The fact that none of these cash payoffs were reported – a clearly documented infraction that could carry jail time – seems like something that would stand up pretty well in a trial. As for the refusal of federal prosecutors to take the case – an offer made when state prosecutors became convinced Kane had a conflict of interest – that’s not exactly a shock to anyone who has been following this politicized Justice Department over the past few years. It’s interesting that no one can identify the federal officials involved, or get a clear explanation for why they took a pass.
Committee of Seventy president Zack Stalberg said in his press release that there were few trustworthy options for review besides an independent counsel: “Attorney General Kane is compromised because she is the one who ended the sting operation. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who has condemned Kane for making racial allegations against two of his employees who spearheaded the investigation for the Attorney General’s office, now has a conflict. And, frankly, given the rash of political corruption cases involving state legislators, it would be hard for the public to have confidence in a probe of its members by the state House Ethics Committee.”
There’s a lot more background to the investigation at the Inquirer, which compares the saga to the famed Abscam case from the Seventies, dramatized in the recent film “American Hustle.” Philadelphia Magazine has a look at the political fallout from the case, noting that Pennsylvania Democrat leaders are already trying to soft-pedal the affair as a simple matter of the officials under investigation forgetting to fill out some paperwork after receiving their gifts, but also noting in Attorney General Kane’s defense that she “traditionally hasn’t been shy about prosecuting Democrats,” including some in very high places. It seems like everyone would benefit from sorting the whole thing out with a fair, nonpartisan inquiry.