Sting operations have a complicated history
Stings against politicians, drug dealers, and others have been praised as a vital way to ferret out hidden wrongdoing - and condemned as an abuse of power that creates, rather than stops, crime.
Controversial though they may be, stings are a tool frequently used by law enforcement. And defendants usually fail when they cry entrapment.
In the 19-month operation launched in 2010 by top prosecutors with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, an undercover operator ensnared at least five Democratic officials from Philadelphia accepting money or gifts, knowledgeable sources say.
Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, a Democrat, inherited the sting when she assumed office in 2013 and shut it down without bringing any charges.
She has criticized the investigation as being poorly conceived, badly managed, and possibly tainted by racial targeting. Supporters of the sting reject that criticism, saying Kane needlessly ended a probe that had caught several elected officials taking money or gifts and that could have captured even more targets on tape.
The sting's undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali, among other pitches, told politicians he was seeking an "in" to get contracts collecting government revenue. In other cases, he asked lawmakers to vote a certain way on pending legislation.
Every few years, across the nation, authorities suddenly surface with the details of undercover stings.
In going after Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, U.S. prosecutors and the FBI concocted a scenario in which a developer, working as a government agent, paid him bribes to win approval for a phony parking-garage project. Mack was convicted in February.
Five years ago, the FBI ran an even more ambitious sting in New Jersey, a bribery and money-laundering investigation that led to the convictions of the mayors of Secaucus and Hoboken, a state assemblyman, and five rabbis among 46 defendants.
Probably the best-known sting was the one nearly 40 years ago called Abscam. The name mashed up Abdul Enterprises, a fake business set up by the FBI, and the word scam. The operation inspired the recent hit movie American Hustle.
In the words of an Abscam court opinion, the undercover player at the center was Mel Weinberg, "a career swindler" trying to win a break in a mail-fraud case.
Among the defendants was former U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers, the South Philadelphia Democrat who was infamously caught on tape in 1979 taking a $50,000 cash bribe and declaring, "I'm gonna tell you something real simple and short: Money talks in this business, and bulls- walks."
Rejecting legal arguments raised by Myers and others, U.S. District Judge George C. Pratt said the defendants "could simply have said 'no' to the offer."
"The government needs to have available the weapons of undercover operations, infiltration of bribery schemes, and 'sting' operations," the judge wrote. Without these tools, "only rarely would the government be able to expose and prosecute bribery and other forms of political corruption."
Still, the use of stings has been hotly debated for decades. The U.S. Supreme Court first authorized an entrapment defense in 1932, overturning the conviction of a suspected rumrunner during Prohibition. The high court said the defendant was an otherwise law-abiding man who broke the law only after "repeated and persistent solicitation."
Four years before that, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a dissent that the government "may not provoke or create a crime and then punish the criminal, its creature."
Still, defendants have a tough time mounting an entrapment defense. They must prove that the prosecution was so over-the-top - the inducements so sweet, the pressure so intense - as to be "outrageous."
In the Abscam case, a federal judge overturned the conviction of Philadelphia's City Council president and another councilman after deciding that authorities had gone too far. Judge John P. Fullam found that the bribes paid were "exceedingly generous." Council President George X. Schwartz took $30,000 and Councilman Harry Jannotti $10,000.
(In contrast, the undercover agent in the sting begun in 2010 by the Attorney General's Office paid out $500 to $1,000 at a time, according to investigative documents in the case.)
Fullam also noted that the scam involved winning political support for a worthy, if fake, project: a $150 million hotel.
"I'm interested in a good project," Schwartz said on videotape. "I'm interested in tax ratables. I want to see Center City develop."
Schwartz also told an undercover FBI agent, referring to his colleagues on Council: "You tell me your birth date, I'll give them to you for your birthday."
In a different case, a judge set aside a Florida congressman's conviction, saying that the sting was "odious," that the politician had been targeted without the "remotest suspicion," and that he had been made "into a criminal by his own government."
Appeals courts reinstated all the convictions.
In the Abscam case, an appeals court said the money paid was not excessive. It also found that the defendants were not excused from guilt merely because the project was something they would have supported without a bribe.
In the Florida case, the appellate judges found that the target had demonstrated, even before he pocketed a bribe, that he was "fully aware that he was participating in an illicit transaction."
Because of this, the judge said, prosecutors had every right to think that the target "was, in fact, corrupt."
When he finally did take a $25,000 bribe, he stuffed the cash into his coat, suit, and pants pockets. "Does it show?" he asked.
Craig R. McCoy and Angela Couloumbis are Inquirer staff writers
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