We've been talking here, intermittently, about the role that good local journalism -- the kind that's increasingly impossible to support economically -- can play in lifting up the rock of secretive, bad-acting publica authority, to expose the slime crawling underneath. So let's give credit across the hallway here in the ladies undergarment department at 8th and Market: It doesn't get much better than today's report in the Inquirer by Angela Couloumbis and Craig McCoy on how as many as five Democratic Philadelphia pols were seemingly caught red-handed accepting cash or gifts -- and yet our newly elected Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane quashed the probe.
It's essential that you read the entire article. In a nutshell, the AG's office began an undercover sting operation against certain politicians in 2010, when the attorney general was a chap named Tom Corbett (perhaps you've heard of him?). An obscure lobbyist caught up on unrelated charges agreed to wear a wire and offer mid-sized bribes to state legislators and others; ultimately, according to the article, four lawmakers from Philadelphia and a judge were captured on tape accepting either cash or, in the case of the judge, a Tiffany bracelet. And yet Kane ultimately decided that lawmakers taking other people's money on tape somehow wasn't enough evidence to bring criminal charges. Kane told the newspaper in a statement that the sting operation -- which targeted black elected officials -- was racially biased and she added, somewhat incongruously. this is "nothing more than the Good Ol' Boys club playing political games."
I have several thoughts.
One is that one of the most frustrating things about the rampant, festering cesspool of Pennsylvania political corruption is the completely arbitrary nature of who gets prosecuted and who doesn't. Just in the last couple of weeks, we've seen a) the Philadelphia DA indict a state lawmaker for corruption (something that never happens, although it should happen all the time) and the lawmaker's lawyer says it's all because of a fight over a woman, a charge that would seem utterly ridiculous anywhere BUT Philly b) AG Kane move to indict a different black Philadelphia Democrat, state Sen. LeAnna Washington, just days before the Inquirer story and c) now these outrageous allegations about Kane.
Look, I know this is going to sound overly cynical and is unfair to a tiny handful of good people out there, but I believe that most elected officials in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere) commit acts of official misconduct and MANY of them could be indicted -- but whether that ever happens depend not on the magnitude of their wrongdoing but on the political whims of a few, or on whether they've ticked off the wrong person. Are there other lawmakers who may be white or who may be Republicans who are also committing wrongdoing and also need to be investigated? Absolutely. But how does that exonerate these five who took a gift from a lobbyist and stuffed it in their pocket? It doesn't.
There is racism in our criminal justice system -- a lot of it. There are ridiculous racial disparities in who goes to prison for using drugs, in how the death penalty is administered, and in the mass incarceration of African-American men. But none of that really has anything to do with this case, with lawmakers who -- let us not forget -- make $78,314 a year in their "part-time" job and who've been caught on tape taking even more dough, with the political equivalent of a smoking gun in their hands.
This story is going to be talked about for months, and 98 percent of that talk is going to be about the politics, about Kane's "political future" (there isn't one) and about how Republicans are going to wield this episode with all the subtlety of a blunt nightstick, hoping that voters will look at this and not Corbett's atrocious record as governor, or even about the lawmakers, even though they'll still probably get re-elected with 86 percent of the vote. or whatever.
Nobody's going to talk about the real losers here, people who are also predominantly black, but predominantly poor as well. They are the citizens who are "represented," atrociously, by the likes of Ronald Waters, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee and Louise Bishop. They live in neighborhoods that are devastated by high crime, by payday lenders and other vultures, by schools that have been left for dead by the political elites, and by a lack of job opportunities, especially ones that pay a living wage. These voters need representatives who will fight for them every second of the day -- not hand-picked handmaidens of a corrupt political machine scurrying for envelopes of illicit cash or a Tiffany bracelet. When the dust from this eventually settles, political careers will be made or broken -- but the people in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods will still lack a real voice in our so-called democracy.
That is the greatest crime of all, and it is the one that none dare prosecute.