- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - The undercover sting that state Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office called too flawed to win convictions did just that Monday, racking up guilty pleas from a legislator and a former lawmaker, bringing the total to three after Philadelphia prosecutors took over the case.

The two Philadelphia Democrats will be given probation and will get to keep their state pensions.

Appearing in Dauphin County court, Rep. Ron Waters pleaded guilty to nine counts of conflict of interest, requiring him to serve 23 months on probation and resign the seat in the state House of Representatives he had held since 1999. He submitted his formal notice of resignation later in the day.

Former Rep. Harold James pleaded guilty to a single count of conflict of interest and received 12 months of probation. The cases were built on secret recordings by an informant posing as a lobbyist who offered cash or gifts in exchange for promises of official favors.

Each conflict charge carried a maximum five-year jail term, but prosecutors did not ask Judge Scott Evans for a particular punishment and would not say whether they had wanted jail time.

“We’re satisfied with the outcome,” said Mark Gilson, the Philadelphia assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case. “You got to remember where this case started. This was a case that the chief law enforcement officer for Pennsylvania said was dead on arrival, non-prosecutable. And today, two defendants pled guilty. I think that tells you everything you need to know about the strength and quality of this case.”

The guilty plea does not cause Waters, 65, and James, 66, to lose their state pensions, Gilson said.

More cases are pending. Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, had signed an agreement to plead guilty and had been expected to appear with James and Waters on Monday morning to enter it into court, but she pulled out, Gilson said. Evans rescheduled Brown for a July 13 hearing, and she and her lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, left court without elaborating.

“The only thing that I can tell you is that we need some additional time to review some issues that are outstanding,” Diamondstein told reporters.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams charged six people in the case after Kane declined to pursue the investigation.

All told, Waters admitted taking $8,750 from lobbyist Tyron Ali. James admitted taking $750. On Monday, Waters told Evans that he had made bad choices but asked Evans to consider his standing as a good son, father and neighbor who never voted against his district’s interests.

“Look at the whole man who is standing before you,” Waters told Evans.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Waters and James had cooperated with them, including appearing in front of the grand jury and effectively admitting guilt.

The investigation had been a secret and all of its records sealed until The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March 2014 that Kane’s office had decided against pursuing it. Kane, who took office in 2013, inherited the case from her predecessors and she attacked it as too fatally flawed to win convictions in court.

The case had been so poorly conceived and managed that it was impossible to prove that the lawmakers had done something illegal, Kane and her aides said. In addition, investigators had targeted black lawmakers without cause, Kane said. All of the defendants are black.

Williams, who also is black, took over the case after Kane effectively dared him. After a six-month grand jury investigation, he began filing charges in October. A former Philadelphia traffic court president judge, Thomasine Tynes, pleaded guilty to conflict of interest in December.

Meanwhile, Rep. Michelle Brownlee is scheduled to appear in court next Monday, and Rep. Louise Bishop is scheduled to be in court Friday. Bishop, 81, wants the case dismissed, echoing Kane’s claim that the sting’s targets were selected because of their race.

That rankled Gilson, who said Kane’s accusations about racial targeting had slandered law enforcement officials with a successful record of prosecuting public corruption.

“She made baseless allegations about racial targeting and they have now formed the basis for a legal filing,” Gilson said. “The chickens have come home to roost. She should be witness No. 1. I insist that she testify.”

A Kane spokesman responded by saying “the attorney general stands by her decision not to prosecute the African-American legislators involved. She also stands by the grounds on which she made that decision.”

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