Pennsylvania Governor Calls on Convicted State Rep. Acosta to Resign

by | September 21, 2016

By Jeremy Roebuck and Angela Couloumbis

State Rep. Leslie Acosta vowed Tuesday to remain in office and to continue her reelection campaign even as leaders of her party -- including Gov. Wolf -- called for her to resign over the revelation last week that she secretly had pleaded guilty to federal felony charges earlier this year.

What's more, a lawyer for the North Philadelphia Democrat said that Acosta intends to launch a legal bid to keep her seat even after she is sentenced next year.

"It is Rep. Acosta's intention to let the legal process run its course so she can continue to serve her constituency for as long as possible," her lawyer Christopher Warren said. "If the courts ultimately determine that she is unfit to hold public office, she will of course abide by that decision."

Generally, the state constitution bars public officials from holding office if they have been convicted of felonies, a process that is not considered complete until a sentence is imposed. But Warren said Tuesday that Acosta has a convincing argument that those restrictions should not apply in her case.

"Admittedly, it could go either way. However, she's entitled to present it to a court and let the court make that decision -- not Bob Brady," he said, referring to U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the City Democratic Committee, who earlier this week called for Acosta's immediate resignation.

On Tuesday, Gov. Wolf added his voice to the chorus calling for her to step aside.

"I don't think any public official who is guilty -- pleaded guilty to corruption -- should be in public life," he said, adding: "We need to be above board, transparent, open and honest. If we can't do that, we shouldn't be here."

Pressed to say whether she should be allowed to remain in office until the day of her sentencing, Wolf said: "No public official should be in office who is guilty of a crime."

Brady expressed frustration Monday that Acosta had not informed party leaders earlier of the case against her or her decision to plead guilty in March to one federal count of conspiracy to commit money laundering in a proceeding that remains under court seal.

His comments came even as her colleagues in the House mulled plans to refuse to seat her for her second term should she return to Harrisburg when the new, two-year legislative session begins in January, nine days before she is scheduled to be sentenced in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia.

Acosta -- who is running unopposed for reelection in a district that includes Fairhill, Hunting Park, and parts of North Philadelphia -- has not spoken about her case since the Inquirer first reported on it Friday.

She did not return to the Capitol on Monday as the House reconvened for the first day of its fall session, and informed her party's leadership that she did not intend to return this week, a spokesman for the House Democratic caucus said.

The case against her involves an alleged embezzlement scheme involving Renee Tartaglione, scion of a Northeast Philadelphia political dynasty and Acosta's former boss at the Fairhill mental health clinic at which she worked prior to taking office.

Facing trial in November, Tartaglione is accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic, a publicly funded facility she founded with her husband in 2002 to serve low-income patients.

According to court filings unsealed the day of Acosta's plea, she was charged with knowingly aiding Tartaglione in her theft by accepting checks from the clinic worth thousands of dollars between 2008 and 2012 for work she did not perform. She purportedly cashed them and kicked the money back to her former boss.

Sources familiar with the case say Acosta is cooperating with the government against Tartaglione and could testify at her trial.

Until then, Warren said, he has instructed the representative to make no statements about her legal woes.

The lawyer declined to discuss details of her case, except to point out that prosecutors had not accused his client of personally benefiting from her crimes and that they occurred years before she took office last year.

"Obviously, she has no control what, if anything, her Republican adversaries in the House may or may not do," he said. "Until she is sentenced, however, she is not disqualified from holding public office."

(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer