Why Did Authorities Shut Down a Sting Operation That Caught 5 Elected Officials?

by | April 9, 2014 AT 6:35 PM

By Angela Couloumbis and Craig R. McCoy

The sting investigation that caught at least five elected officials on tape accepting cash and gifts was far from dead and should not have been shut down.

So said Claude Thomas, the sting's lead investigator, who spoke to The Inquirer on Tuesday about the long-running inquiry that was dropped after state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane took office early last year.

Thomas, who worked for the Attorney General's Office for more than 25 years, said the sting was "ripe for continuation upon [Kane's] arrival."

He said undercover operative Tyron Ali had deeply "ingratiated himself in the political scene with both politicians and lobbyists," having built relationships with more than four dozen people, including politicians and lobbyists.

"We were prepared to expand the case," Thomas said Tuesday of the now-shuttered sting. "We were meeting our objective and our goal." The Inquirer has reported that the sting investigation began in late 2010, under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican. After Kane, a Democrat, took office in January 2013, she shut it down without bringing charges against anyone.

Kane has said she did so because the inquiry was poorly managed and possibly tainted by racial profiling. She also said that the case had been inactive for months before she arrived, and that other law enforcement agencies, including the Dauphin County District Attorney's Office, agreed with her that the case could not have been prosecuted successfully.

Prosecutors who ran the sting counter that it was a by-the-book investigation that had snared elected officials and had the potential to capture more.

Race, they said, played no role in the selection of targets. Thomas, who is African American, has vehemently echoed that sentiment.

Even as public scrutiny of why the probe was shut down continues, a Dauphin County Court judge is poised to decide whether to unseal secret documents involving the sting.

In separate motions, 10 newspapers from across the state, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, have asked for those records to be unsealed, arguing that the public has a well-established right to open court proceedings.

Kane has said she supports unsealing those documents, and the judge could make a decision on the matter as early as Wednesday. Separately Tuesday, Harrisburg state government activist Gene Stilp took the unusual step of filing private criminal complaints against some of the lawmakers snared in the sting. Stilp, who has also run for public office, filed the complaints with the Dauphin County District Attorney's Office and the state Attorney General's Office.

In an interview, Stilp said his ultimate goal was to have the matter brought before a judge. If the two law enforcement agencies reject his complaints, Stilp said, he can appeal to County Court. "It's time we get this moving in the courts," Stilp said Tuesday. "All we have now is many attorneys arguing over what happened."

At least five Philadelphia Democrats, including four state lawmakers, were captured on tape accepting money or gifts from Ali, The Inquirer has reported. They include State Reps. Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee, Louise Bishop, and Ron Waters.

The Attorney General's Office declined to comment Tuesday on Stilp's complaints. Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said his office would review the private complaints.

Stilp filed three complaints, one each against Brown, Brownlee, and Waters. He said he did not file a complaint against Bishop, 80, because she is a senior citizen.

None of the lawmakers could be reached for comment. Bill Patton, a spokesman for the House Democrats, said that he had not seen Stilp's complaints but that they sounded "like a bit of a reach."

In the complaints, Stilp cited reporting in The Inquirer, which obtained summaries of transcripts from the tapes Ali made while he was working undercover for the Attorney General's Office.

Stilp accuses Brown of improperly accepting money from Ali in return for official action. He accuses Brownlee and Waters of failing to disclose payments Ali made to them on their annual financial disclosure forms.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer