Case of lawmakers taking secret gifts flawed, Kane says

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HARRISBURG -- An informant operating under several Pennsylvania attorneys general distributed more than $20,000 in taxpayer money to approximately eight targets before the office determined flaws in the case crippled any chance of a prosecution, Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Monday.

Ms. Kane spoke at a news conference called in response to a Philadelphia Inquirer report revealing an operation in which a confidential informant wearing a wire offered money to targets. The newspaper reported Sunday that four Philadelphia Democratic state representatives accepted money but that the investigation was closed without charges.

The attorney general's office determined it could not prosecute for several reasons, Ms. Kane said, most importantly because it concluded the credibility of the confidential informant had been ruined by an agreement, signed after Ms. Kane was elected but before she took office, that absolved the informant of more than 2,000 charges related to accusations of fraud. The informant, who posed as a lobbyist, was the only witness present when the tapes were made, she said.

"The credibility of the CI was completely shot," she said, describing the dismissal of the charges. "His credibility was ruined at that point, absolutely ruined. To get any of the evidence into court beyond that was almost impossible."

There also was evidence of racial targeting, Ms. Kane said, including the word of one person who told the attorney general's office and a second person who told another law enforcement agency that they were instructed to target black legislators. Of 113 tape recording sessions, 108 featured African-American targets, according to the attorney general's office.

These factors combined with other flaws to make the case unfit for prosecution, Ms. Kane said, though she acknowledged the tapes include incriminating evidence.

"I believe that we have evidence that certain legislators were taking money, and that's a crime," she said.

But short of a restitution agreement, through a guilty plea or verdict, Ms. Kane said, her office has no way to compel the return of the money to the state.

None of the four state representatives named by the Inquirer responded Monday to requests for comment. The offices of Ronald G. Waters, Vanessa Lowery Brown and Michelle Brownlee referred a reporter to a spokesman for the House Democratic caucus, who said he did not have information about the alleged cases of accepting money. Louise Bishop did not respond to a message left by phone at her Capitol office.

House Democratic leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont said in a statement that he was concerned about the "apparent targeting" of a group of legislators. But he also expressed concern about the claims regarding the behavior of members.

"The allegations reported in the article are troubling," he said. "If it's true that any legislators accepted gifts without reporting them, they should correct that reporting mistake."

The taping began in October 2010, at the end of Gov. Tom Corbett's time as attorney general, and continued through the tenures of acting Attorney General Bill Ryan and Attorney General Linda Kelly, according to a timeline provided by the attorney general's office. Taping concluded nine months before Ms. Kane took office, she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Corbett said the governor had no comment on the case.

Ms. Kane said she learned of the investigation during her first staff meeting as attorney general. She assigned her chief counsel to the case, she said, and he reviewed the 113 recordings. That attorney, other high-ranking staff members and Ms. Kane concluded they could not prosecute the case.

In addition to the issue of credibility of the informant and that of the alleged racial targeting, the case failed to make use of routine investigative tools such as subpoenas, interviews or a grand jury, Ms. Kane said.

Still, the attorney general's office asked the opinion of Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, a Republican, and that of a federal law enforcement agency, both of whom Ms. Kane said agreed with the assessment of her office. Ms. Kane declined to identify the federal agency.

Karen Langley:, 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley. First Published March 17, 2014 5:19 PM

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