Prosecutors almost never go to war against each other. But in Pennsylvania, Democratic attorney general Kathleen Kane is being brutally criticized by Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s district attorney and a fellow Democrat. Williams is upset that last year one of Kane’s first acts in office was to decline to prosecute four Philadelphia state legislators and other government officials. In a sting operation, all had been caught accepting cash or Tiffany jewelry in exchange for votes or favors. Kane, who is white, has defended herself, saying that the investigation was badly managed and tainted by racism. She claims the criticism comes from what she calls the “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” Williams, who is African American, has shot back: “I have seen racism. I know what it looks like. This isn’t it.”
The sting operation followed pretty much the same playbook as the federal Abscam investigation of the 1970s. Begun in 2010, the Philly probe was conducted under Kane’s three immediate predecessors as attorney general, and it resulted in more than 400 hours of video and audio recordings. Tyron B. Ali, a lobbyist originally from Trinidad, served as the undercover agent; after he was charged with fraud, he agreed to wear a wire in exchange for lenient treatment. Word of his cash offers eventually got around and prompted some elected officials to call him first. “Sources with knowledge of the sting said the investigation made financial pitches to both Republicans and Democrats, but only Democrats accepted the payments,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported last week.
Attorney General Kane inherited the investigation when she took office in January 2013. She told the Inquirer that she stopped it without filing any charges because it was “poorly conceived, badly managed, and tainted by racism.” She quoted Claude Thomas, the chief investigator in the case, as saying he had been ordered to target “only members of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus” and to ignore “potentially illegal acts by white members.”
In response, Williams issued an angry statement and penned an op-ed in Sunday’s Inquirer. “The notion that they would target anyone based on race is ridiculous,” Williams said in a statement. “I am confident they are not racist, and it is regrettable that the attorney general would casually throw around such an explosive accusation.” Thomas, who is also African American, now works for Williams and denies he ever made such a statement.
What is clear is just how damning some of the collected evidence is. The Inquirer reported this exchange between Ali, the lobbyist, and state representative Vanessa Brown:
Ali went to Brown’s office and handed her an envelope with $2,000, according to people who have reviewed a transcript of a tape Ali made on that day.
As Brown accepted the money, they said, she put it in her purse and said: “Yo, good looking and Ooowee. . . . Thank you twice.”
After he gave Brown the money, Ali urged her to vote against a bill that would require voters to show identification at the polls, the sources said.
Kane’s supporters say that federal law-enforcement officials she consulted believed the probe had suffered from a lack of “quality control” and could be viewed as entrapment. “Is the acceptance of cash alarming? Absolutely,” one person close to Kane told the Inquirer. “But you’ve got to think: I’ve got to try this case.”
It certainly may have been politically awkward for Kane, as a Democrat, to prosecute only African-American defendants, but a conviction on something should have been a slam dunk. Even if prosecutors couldn’t prove a quid pro quo, it is illegal for politicians to accept payments to enrich themselves and also illegal not to report the income. Further, the prosecutors in this case have a sterling track record in securing convictions against the leadership of both parties in the legislature, winning 21 convictions in the 2010 “Bonusgate” scandal, which involved illegal payments to legislative staffers who performed political work. All of those convicted were white.
Kane has declined to answer detailed questions about why she dropped the investigation. Her critics, she says, are “playing political games to discredit me in order to fulfill their own selfish and improper agenda.” When she met with Inquirer editors last Thursday, she brought her personal attorney and on his advice declined to answer any questions after the meeting. Her attorney says she may file a defamation suit against the paper, a ploy frequently used by public figures to intimidate journalists.
Williams says he is tired of Kane’s “escalating excuses.” He points out that when she took office, the files on the probe were with federal prosecutors who hadn’t yet concluded whether they wanted to pursue their own case. “All she had to do was leave the investigation in the hands of federal authorities,” Williams wrote in Sunday’s Inquirer. “But she didn’t do that. Instead, she asked for the files back. And then, after going out of the way to reclaim the investigation, she shut it down.”
One bit player in the drama, who had dealings with Ali and was shocked to learn later that Ali was a government agent, says the whole thing reminds him of a John Grisham novel. My vote is for House of Cards. And from what we know so far, it shouldn’t be too hard to start matching up some of the Philadelphia players with their dramatic counterparts in the Netflix series.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.