A decision by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane to shut down an investigation into corruption in Philadelphia cannot be the end of the inquiry. Not morally, anyway.
There are two sides to the story right now. Ms. Kane, a Democrat, says she inherited a deeply flawed investigation upon taking office last year and decided not to prosecute because no convictions could possibly result from it. Her critics, including a fellow Democrat who is Philadelphia’s district attorney, say she dropped the case prematurely despite devastating evidence that was uncovered against five other Democrats during a three-year sting.
Before she lawyered up with famed libel attorney Richard Sprague, Ms. Kane said that during the course of the investigation, a government informant handed out $20,000 in taxpayer money. She said the informant got a sweetheart deal from her predecessors in the attorney general’s office on his own fraud charges — thousands of them — and that the case was poorly run and racially tainted, targeting black politicians.
Philadelphia DA Seth Williams, who is a black politician, says she is wrong and that the two lead investigators — both now work for Mr. Williams — have excellent reputations.
The public doesn’t have enough information yet to decide who is right, and Ms. Kane isn’t talking anymore. After the Philadelphia Inquirer reported her decision to drop the investigation, she held a news conference and requested a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board. At the scheduled time last week, though, she showed up with Mr. Sprague, who said he would be doing the talking instead of his client.
The voters elected Ms. Kane, not Mr. Sprague, as attorney general and she is duty-bound to give a much fuller account of the details — why this informant was used, how his targets were selected, what was the scope of the investigation and what legal hurdles she saw to bringing charges against Thomasine Tynes, president judge of Philadelphia Traffic Court, and four state representatives — Louise Bishop, Ronald Waters, Vanessa Brown and Michelle Brownlee.
Even before she answers the myriad questions regarding the investigation, though, the public can plainly see one thing here that was very wrong, no matter what: Excerpts of surreptitiously recorded conversations between the informant and the officials, published by the Inquirer, indicate they all stuffed wads of cash into their purses and pockets. In some cases, envelopes contained hundreds of dollars; in others, it was thousands.
Crass and cavalier describe the exchanges, even if a case can’t be made that the behavior was criminal. And until Ms. Kane makes a more persuasive case for abandoning this investigation, we’re not convinced that it should have been.
Yet short of being arrested, there is little that can be done to the lawmakers. There are no limits on “gifts” to the officeholders, and their only requirement is to report any they receive that are worth more than $250 each or that total $650 in a year. The Philadelphia five didn’t do that, but the law gives them plenty of time to amend their filings. In the meantime, they all have denied wrongdoing.
State senators, responding after the fact, now are calling for a ban on cash gifts to lawmakers. That’s not enough. A stronger proposal, made by government watchdog Common Cause Pennsylvania, would ban all gifts to public officials.
Enacting that change is the least that Pennsylvania lawmakers can do if they truly want to remove the taint and tame the unfettered corruption on display in Philadelphia. A law on the books won’t guarantee that everyone will comply, but it’s a start.