FBI agent: Sting informant says he was told not to target Republicans

Tyron B. Ali, right, along with attorney Alan J.Tauber, left, arrive at the Dauphin County Court house for a hearing Monday, March 28, 2016 in Harrisburg, Pa.

An FBI agent has said the undercover operative in the controversial sting run by the state Attorney General's Office told him he was discouraged from targeting Republicans, raising questions about the integrity of an investigation that has netted five convictions of Democrats.

In a new court filing by the last sting defendant still fighting charges, FBI Special Agent Robert J. Haag said that the operative, Tyron Ali, told him the state office seemed "more interested in targeting Democrats than Republicans."

And in an email Haag wrote in 2013, he said Ali told him he was "reprimanded" for contacting Republicans during the probe and instructed "not to take any initiative in contacting Republicans in the future."

On Saturday, former state prosecutor Frank Fina and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams rejected any suggestion the probe had a partisan agenda - or that Ali was told to go after only Democrats.

Said Fina: "Never, ever was he told to steer towards one party or another."

They said the idea that Ali was told to keep clear of Republicans was a distortion of tactical decisions made to avoid certain officials for fear his cover would be blown.

Fina launched the probe before former State Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut it down. Williams resurrected the investigation into the payments and obtained the convictions.

Kane said Saturday that the filing vindicated her.

"The FBI file speaks for itself and confirms what I have always said: that this investigation was fatally flawed from the beginning."

A sworn affidavit by Haag, along with the email, quoted in length in the filing, was recently turned over by federal prosecutors in response to a demand for sting-related documents by defense lawyers for State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Democrat from West Philadelphia.

They appear to contradict Ali's testimony in March during a Harrisburg pretrial hearing for Brown. At that time, Ali was asked, "Were you told not to go near any Republicans or any Rs?" He replied, "No, I was not."

He also testified that he had never said such a thing to the FBI.

Brown, the only sting defendant still in office, was recorded by Ali as he gave her $4,000 in cash in five installments in 2011. As she pocketed one payment, Brown closed the door to her Harrisburg office, looked at the money and declared: "Ooh, good looking! . . . Thank you twice."

Brown's lawyer, Patrick Casey, with the Scranton firm of Myers, Brier & Kelly, filed the FBI agent's documents with a Common Pleas Court on Thursday in a bid to have her case thrown out.

Through a circuitous route, the sting investigation was the first in a series of events that ultimately led to the August criminal conviction of Kane, the first Democrat to be elected attorney general of Pennsylvania.

Kane inherited the sting investigation upon taking office in 2014 but quickly shut it down without bringing charges or notifying ethics officials that her office had caught officials accepting unreported cash. All news of the sting was kept secret.

When The Inquirer broke the news of her decision in a 2014 story, Kane blamed Fina for the paper's article. In her criminal case, a jury found that she then illegally leaked grand jury material to the Philadelphia Daily News to plant a story in a scheme to embarrass him and then lied about it under oath.

She has been sentenced to serve a minimum of 10 months in county jail but is free on appeal.

In her many criticisms of the sting, Kane did not allege that the investigation had given Republicans a pass. Rather, in her most incendiary complaint, she said that the case might have had a racial bias.

She said her staff had heard that Ali had told federal law-enforcement officials - Kane has never identified them – that he was told to limit his focus to the legislative Black Caucus.

Kane also said Ali's street handler, state agent Claude Thomas, had told one of her top supervisors that he, too, had been told to go after only African Americans.

Thomas has denied saying that, and has insisted the sting had no racial or political bias. Thomas and a lawyer for Ali could not be reached for comment Saturday.

In addition, Kane said of 113 recordings made by Ali, 111 were of people of color.

In his affidavit, Haag, the FBI agent, knocked down the racial complaint, saying, "Ali said he had never been instructed to target individuals based on their race or ethnicity."

Acting on a dare from Kane, District Attorney Williams resurrected the sting investigation in 2014, eventually winning four guilty pleas and a no-contest plea. All defendants are African American.

Pleading guilty were former State Reps. Michelle Brownlee, Harold James and Ronald Waters, as well as Thomasine Tynes, a one-time president judge of Traffic Court. She accepted a $2,000 bracelet.

Another state representative, Louise Williams Bishop, pleaded no contest to failing to report the $1,500 she took. The law views a no-contest plea as akin to a conviction.

Ali began cooperating with Fina in 2010 to win leniency in a pending state fraud case. At that time, the attorney general was Tom Corbett, a Republican.

Ali recorded both sound and video of his quarries over a 19-month period that ended in 2012.

In all, according to people familiar with the sting, Ali had undercover dealings with 51 people. They were a mix of state legislators, lobbyists, and Philadelphia officials. They were roughly equally black and white.

In terms of party affiliation, Ali dealt primarily with Democrats but also with a number of Republicans. At one point, for instance, Ali tried to use his connection with a Democratic lawmaker who had taken cash to win a contract from the Republican-controlled Philadelphia Parking Authority but was rebuffed.

It is apparent from the Haag affidavit, dated Nov. 30, that Ali was talking with the FBI at the same time as he was serving as a state informant. The documents stop short of calling him an FBI informant.

Haag says he became aware of the sting as early as 2011 - three years before the Inquirer reported its existence.

In his affidavit, Haag wrote, "I do not recall Ali telling me he was specifically instructed to target Democrats."

That said, Haag suggested, Ali told him the Attorney General's Office put the brakes on when he tried to go after Republicans.

On his own initiative, Ali said, he had reached out to Republican lobbyists and officials to develop them as targets.

"When he brought this to the attention of investigators, he was told to cease immediately," Haag wrote. "Ali did not encounter such pushback when showing similar initiative with Democrats."

In 2013, again before the sting had become publicly controversial, Haag wrote an email summarizing his talks with Ali.

In it, Haag said that Ali indicated he had talked with two agents in the Attorney General's Office about "specifically targeting Democrats in the state legislature."

According to Haag, Ali was told not to take cash to Republican fund-raisers "or to offer cash payments to Republicans."

Ali "had several conversations with Agents about how management within the AG's office did not want him to get involved with Republicans," Haag wrote.

Ali "was told the AG's office would eventually find a republican to target to ensure it did not appear the AG's office was unfairly targeting democrats."

For their parts, Fina and Williams pointed to Fina's record prosecuting Republicans in the well-known Computergate cases, in which nine GOP lawmakers and aides were convicted of corruption.

"I prosecuted more Republicans than any other prosecutor in Pennsylvania," said Fina, who left the Attorney General's Office to work for Williams but who is now in private practice.

During the sting, Fina and the District Attorney's Office said prosecutors in a few specific instances would have to rein in Ali, a known Democrat, for fear that some Republicans might grow suspicious at his approach.

In these few cases, Fina said, prosecutors had a tactical concern that Ali's cover would be blown if he approached certain Republicans with past ties to the Attorney General's Office who might have a suspicion that an undercover operation was underway in Harrisburg.

In a statement, the District Attorney's Office said:

"The occasions referenced by Mr. Ali in which he was cautioned not to approach certain individuals with payments arose from a fear that his undercover status would be compromised by those persons, rather than any judgment about their party affiliation."

Upset at restrictions, the headstrong Ali would complain to Haag, Fina said. By the same token, Fina said, federal informants would often complain to him about how the FBI was treating them.

cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821@CraigRMcCoy