- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A watchdog group is calling for an independent-counsel probe after Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general dropped the prosecution of four Democratic legislators accused of taking bribes in exchange for votes.

The Committee of Seventy, a government ethics group in Philadelphia, urged the Pennsylvania legislature this week to create an independent counsel to conduct “a fair and non-partisan” investigation into the dismissed sting operation.

“The public must be assured that a full and fair review has been conducted by someone without any personal or political interest in the outcome,” said Committee of Seventy President and CEO Zack Stalberg. “There are also extremely disturbing allegations that demand an independent, non-partisan investigation to determine if any laws were violated.”

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said she was shutting down the three-year-old sting investigation because the case was poorly managed, investigators didn’t rely on traditional police techniques and there was evidence of racial targeting. All those accused of taking money are blacks and members of the Democratic Party.

The sting operation was brought to light Sunday by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which called into question Ms. Kane’s reasons for shutting down the probe.

Prosecutors began the sting in 2010 when Republican Tom Corbett, now the governor, was attorney general. After Ms. Kane took office in 2013, she shut it down.

The newspaper, citing sources familiar with the investigation, said prosecutors amassed 400 hours of audio and videotape documenting at least four Democratic state legislators from Philadelphia taking payments in cash or money orders, and in one case a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet. They reportedly were bribed by a lobbyist who wore a “wire” and tape-recorded the targets to win favorable treatment after his arrest in a fraud case.

The Inquirer reported that the investigation made financial pitches to both Republican and Democratic officials, but only Democrats accepted the payments.

However, Ms. Kane said the agent who accompanied the lobbyist as he carried out the sting operation was instructed by law-enforcement officials to target blacks, and to ignore illegal acts by whites.

The payments ranged from $500 to $2,000 — with most of the targets accepting multiple payments, people familiar with the investigation said. In some cases, the payments were offered in exchange for votes or contracts, they said.

The newspaper identified the four state legislators who allegedly took money as Reps. Ronald G. Waters, $7,650; Vanessa Brown, $4,000; Michelle Brownlee, $3,500; and Louise Bishop, $1,500.

The Attorney General’s office dropped the fraud charges secretly, under seal, last fall.

Mr. Stalberg said the case “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.”

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