When a public official is caught on tape taking a bribe, it’s usually only a matter of time before he can expected to be fitted in an orange jumpsuit. In one famous corruption sting that began in 1979, FBI agents pretended to be Middle Eastern sheiks handing out bribes to a United States senator, five members of the House and several members of the Philadelphia city council. With dramatic video footage, all were convicted.
Several Philadelphia politicians have not learned the bitter lesson of Abscam. Four members of the Pennslyvania legislature who represent districts in the City of Brotherly Love, and one traffic court judge, were caught accepting “things of value” in return for performing official favors. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that prosecutors collected 400 hours of audio and videotape to prove their case but Kathleen Kane, the attorney general of Pennsylvania, decided not to prosecute.
Mrs. Kane, like the four legislators and one traffic judge in the taped incident, is a Democrat. She suggests the investigation, originated by her predecessor, was “racist.” Mrs. Kane says 108 of the 113 recordings made over two years showed evidence against black officials. She insists that the investigation was “deeply flawed” because the informant who offered the bribes turned out to be a “shady” character. Most informants, as any cop could tell you, are.
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, initiated the investigation three years ago as the state attorney general. He targeted a number of both Republicans and Democrats. Some were white and some were black. The Republicans walked away from the offers of cash. The Democrats did not. The Inquirer reported that a judge took a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet and the state representatives took between $1,500 and $7,650 each in return for city contracts or votes on issues like privatizing state liquor stores.
Mrs. Kane says the recordings are “the only evidence of alleged wrongdoing” and that they don’t establish the quid pro quo needed to make a bribery charge stick. Perhaps, but video can be very persuasive, and a jury isn’t likely to believe a lobbyist hands out cash to politicians without expecting something in return. Even if the bribery charges were to fail, it’s still a crime for state lawmakers not to disclose the gifts.
Prosecutors must always exercise discretion, a trait sorely lacking in many of them, but this case smells like partisanship. Mrs. Kane asked the Justice Department for a second opinion, but this was asking for an opinion from the same prosecutors who declined to prosecute the New Black Panthers, caught on videotape intimidating Philadelphia voters in 2008.
Not everyone accused of stealing gets a pass. Eric Holder’s Justice Department is hotly pursuing Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, and his wife for accepting gifts from a campaign supporter. Politicians who violate the public’s trust deserve the harsh treatment, but it must be equally applied. For the law to have any value, it must apply to Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals alike.