By Angela Couloumbis and Craig R. McCoy, The Philadelphia Inquirer
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said Monday that she believed leading Philadelphia Democrats ensnared in an undercover sting operation committed crimes, but that the case against them was so badly mishandled by her predecessors that it could not be prosecuted.
Responding to a report in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer that five public officials, including four state legislators from Philadelphia, were captured on tape accepting cash, gifts or money orders, Kane said she had no choice but to shut down the investigation.
While saying public corruption made her “sick to her stomach,” Kane said the sting was flawed and tainted by racism, and could not have led to successful prosecutions.
“There is nothing we can do to salvage this case,” she said.
Yet the state’s top state prosecutor acknowledged that the tapes made during the course of the investigation had captured criminal activity.
“I believe that we have evidence that certain legislators were taking money, and that’s a crime,” Kane told reporters at a late-morning news conference in Harrisburg.
She said that eight people in all were captured on tape, but she did not say who they were.
Kane, a Democrat, has maintained that the undercover investigation was poorly managed and badly executed, and relied on an undercover operative whose credibility had been compromised.
Prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office who launched the case in 2010 have countered that the sting operation was solid, and say Kane shut it down for political reasons.
They also say that she faced a conflict in the case, as two people who supported her 2012 campaign for attorney general had previous dealings with the sting operation’s undercover agent, a little-known Philadelphia lobbyist named Tyron B. Ali.
Given the dispute, the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy in Philadelphia on Monday urged the Legislature to allow for the creation of an independent counsel to conduct “a fair and nonpartisan” investigation into why the sting case was closed.
“This is a highly unusual matter where traditional investigative authorities who might review the integrity of the sting operation and its dismissal — both of which are under attack — are compromised,” Zack Stalberg, the committee president, said in a statement.
Kane vigorously defended her office’s record of pursuing public corruption cases.
“It is loud and clear,” she said. “We made no decisions based on political parties.”
She said that upon taking office last January, she directed her top staff to review the case file. That review, she said, showed that the case would never hold up in court. Among the reasons it would fail, she said: Ali’s credibility was “horrendously tainted.”
Before he agreed to cooperate with state prosecutors, Ali had been facing charges in a $430,000 state fraud and theft case.
Those charges, Kane said Monday, were dropped by the sting investigation’s lead prosecutor, Frank G. Fina, just weeks after she was elected.
“This was the deal of the century,” said Kane. “Over 2,000 charges were dropped against this man.”
Fina now heads the public-corruption unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
Kane has also said that the agent who accompanied Ali as he carried out the sting told law enforcement officials that top prosecutors instructed him to target African-Americans, and ignore illegal acts by whites.