Prosecutors: Sting investigation was not partisan

Daniel McCaffery, a Democrat now serving as a Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia, denied frisking confidential informant Tyron Ali.

City prosecutors Tuesday rebutted an allegation that the "sting" corruption investigation had unfairly targeted only Democrats, accusing defense lawyers of twisting tactical decisions made during a complex undercover probe to falsely smear it as partisan witch-hunt.

The legal filing from the prosecution - in a criminal case against the last remaining defendant in the sting - provided a wealth of fresh information about the controversial investigation.

It shed new light on the debate among the sting's planners about potential targets, ranging from top Republican associates of then-Gov. Tom Corbett to a range of Democratic officials in Philadelphia.

It also reports that the case's undercover informant, Tyron Ali, said a political figure patted him down for a recording device in a tense encounter during a 2011 fund-raiser at a South Philadelphia tavern. Ali was not wearing the body wire at the time, it said.

While the court document does not identify the figure, people familiar with the investigation identified him as Daniel McCaffery, a Democrat now serving as a Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, McCaffery denied frisking Ali. "It never happened," he said. "It was a figment of his imagination."

Prosecutors have no additional evidence to buttress Ali's story, leaving the matter a swearing contest between the judge and the informant.

Prosecutors filed their motion in the latest salvo in drawn-out pretrial maneuvering over the fate of State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Democrat from West Philadelphia charged 25 months ago with selling her vote to Ali for $4,000 in cash.

Five other defendants - four former state lawmakers and a Traffic Court judge, all Philadelphia Democrats - have previously pleaded guilty or no contest in the sting probe.

Brown's defense team does not dispute that she took the money - but they are asking a judge in Harrisburg to dismiss the charges on grounds that the investigation was fundamentally unfair.

In a dramatic move last month, defense lawyers with the Scranton firm of Myers, Brier & Kelly unveiled a sworn statement from a Philadelphia FBI agent in which the agent said that Ali had complained to him that the sting's commanders were "more interested in targeting Democrats than Republicans."

The agent, Richard J. Haag, also 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."

The sting investigation was launched in 2010 by state prosecutors working for Republican Tom Corbett, then attorney general before his successful run for governor. Ali agreed to become an informant after his arrest in a massive fraud case. An agent then in the office, Claude Thomas, posed as his driver.

Kathleen G. Kane, the first Democrat to be elected attorney general, shut down the sting in 2013, arguing in part that it might have been tainted by racial targeting.

After the Inquirer disclosed Kane's decision, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams resurrected the shuttered investigation, ultimately bringing the cases against Brown and the five others.

In rebuttal to the Haag affidavit, city prosecutors Mark Gilson and Brad P. Bender say that the FBI agent lacked the context to understand Ali's complaints about who was targeted during his 19 months undercover.

In fact, they wrote, there was a "very simple explanation" for why the sting did not pursue some people.

"The Office of the Attorney General steered the confidential informant away from certain people based on legitimate concerns that those specific individuals may have known about the undercover investigation, the confidential informant or agent Thomas and therefore the investigation would have been compromised," Gilson and Bender wrote.

"Moreover, the evidence shows that such steering was done with respect to Republicans and Democrats."

As an example, they said, state prosecutors put the brakes on Ali after learning that he wanted to open up conversations on his own initiative with two top associates to Corbett.

While their pleading did not identify the two men, people familiar with the matter identified them as Brian Nutt, who was a campaign manager for Corbett; and James Cawley, lieutenant governor during the Corbett governorship.

Nutt issued a statement late Tuesday night denying any contact with Ali.

"I was never approached nor was in the company" of Ali, the statement said. "It is unfortunate when anyone makes inaccurate and inappropriate accusations."

Frank Fina, the former state prosecutor who launched the sting, was quoted in the pleading as saying he was worried that Ali's cover would "get blown" if he had dealings with men so close to Corbett, who was attorney general when the probe was launched.

In one case, Fina said, he told Thomas, Ali's street handler, "You need to get him the hell out of there, because I was very worried that this guy would know from Corbett that the [confidential informant] was working in an undercover capacity."

By a similar logic, Fina said, he rejected Ali's suggestion that he approach then-State Sen. Shirley Kitchen, a city Democrat.

Ali had long known Kitchen, and Fina said he was concerned she might figure out his true role.

Among his general concerns, Fina said, was that some potential targets might recall that Ali had been arrested in the fraud case and grow suspicious that he was free and flush with money.

Fina also was worried that people who had worked in the Attorney General's Office under Corbett might simply recognize Thomas, a fellow worker, prosecutors say.

In an interview Tuesday, Corbett said he never spoke to anyone outside law enforcement about any criminal case. That did not change after he left to become governor, he said.

As for the implication that he might have told anyone within his inner circle about Ali's undercover status, Corbett said: "Maybe that's [Fina's] perception of the world, but it's a misperception."

Kitchen said she was surprised to hear that Ali had urged she be targeted.

If he had offered her a bribe, she said, she would have told him: "That is not something we do."

cmccoy@phillynews.com215-854-4821