State attorney general to ask court to unseal sting records

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HARRISBURG — State Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said Wednesday that she will support a move to unseal secret court records that detail an aborted sting investigation and a legal fight over the non-prosecution deal given the key informant in the case.

In separate motions, 10 newspapers from across the state, including The Inquirer and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, have asked for those records in Dauphin County Court to be unsealed, arguing that the public has a well-established right to open court proceedings.

“All of the facts will show the public that this investigation left over from three previous administrations was critically flawed and could not have been prosecuted,” Ms. Kane said.

The sting investigation, first reported by The Inquirer last month, began in late 2010 under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, then the state’s attorney general.

Undercover agent Tyron Ali, wearing a wire in a bid to win leniency on pending fraud charges, recorded his first tapes in October 2010, three months before Mr. Corbett stepped down to run for governor.

He recorded more tapes during the four months that William H. Ryan Jr. was acting attorney general and during the 19 months that Linda L. Kelly served as the top state proecutor before Ms. Kane, a Democrat, took office in January 2013.

After Ms. Kane became attorney general, she shut down the investigation, saying it was poorly managed and possibly tainted by racial profiling.

Before Ms. Kane ended the undercover operation, sources say, prosecutors had caught five public officials, all Philadelphia Democrats — including four members of the state House — on tape taking money and gifts. Even as she announced that her office would not prosecute, Ms. Kane said she believed the officials had committed crimes.

The state prosecutors who led the sting have insisted that it was a solid investigation conducted honorably that had caught several elected officials taking cash and had the potential to capture more.

The records in Dauphin County detail Mr. Ali’s 2009 arrest on 2,088 charges of defrauding a state food program of $430,000, as well as Ms. Kane’s unsuccessful fight to void a non-prosecution agreement struck with Ali before she took office.

While Ms. Kane’s staff said last week that she supported an unsealing, she did not immediately file a motion to do so. Initially her staff said a gag order in the case barred her even from saying whether she intended to move to open up the records.

On Wednesday, she said she now had legal clearance to reveal her plans.

Under a ruling by Todd A. Hoover, the president judge in Dauphin County Court, Ms. Kane has until Monday to file her motion.

Mr. Ali’s lawyer, Robert J. Levant, declined Wednesday to say whether he will support or or oppose an unsealing.

The Inquirer put together the coalition of newspapers that on Wednesday afternoon asked Judge Hoover to unseal the records.

Besides the Inquirer, the Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the group includes newpapers in Harrisburg, Lancaster and Allentown. The coalition also includes the Associated Press, NBC 10 in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.

Lawyer Michael A. Schwartz, who wrote the coalition’s 21-page filing and compiled its 127-page apppendix, said Wednesday that the state and federal constitutions both presume that courts are open and public.

Mr. Schwartz, a former top federal prosecutor now with the Pepper Hamilton law firm in Philadelphia, said open courts help build public confidence in the courts and deter injustice.

While Mr. Ali’s undercover work may have justified sealing the court records at one time, Mr. Schwartz said, it no longer made sense to keep the court files secret because the investigation is long over.

“There is no longer an overwhelming [secrecy] interest that would overcome the presumption of openess,” he said.

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