State Attorney General Kathleen Kane has hired one of the most feared litigators in the region, Richard A. Sprague, to represent her in possible defamation suits arising from accounts of her decision to end an undercover investigation that taped at least five Philadelphia Democrats accepting cash or gifts.
Sprague said he would launch an investigation into the conduct of the prosecutors who ran that sting operation, which began in 2010 before Kane took office. She has said the case was mismanaged, possibly tainted by racial profiling, and far too weak for any prosecutions.
Kane arrived at a Thursday morning meeting with Inquirer editors and reporters, flanked by a pair of lawyers, Sprague and his son, Thomas A. Sprague. The meeting began on an unusual note when the elder Sprague announced that Kane was his client - and that she would not speak.
Her office had asked for the meeting following the newspaper's story Sunday that disclosed the corruption investigation and her decision to halt it.
"She would like to speak to you," Sprague said Thursday. "Unfortunately, a mean ogre representing her is preventing it. So put the fault on me."
Asked if she agreed with her attorney's advice not to talk, Kane answered, "I do."
During the meeting, Sprague suggested that The Inquirer may have been used by the sources of its stories - "wittingly or unwittingly" as a "weapon" to attack Kane to defend themselves from potential charges of wrongdoing in the management of the probe.
"I intend to look at the investigation from the very beginning to the conclusion of it, and in terms of what has been published, by this paper and others, to take appropriate action on behalf of the attorney general against those responsible for the defamatory and the false publications that have been made," Sprague said.
While Kane has sharply criticized the sting, its supporters say the investigation was a solid probe brought by veteran prosecutors with a history of winning corruption cases against Democrats and Republicans alike.
Editor William K. Marimow defended the newspaper's treatment of the story.
"The Inquirer's coverage of the sting investigation has been meticulously and carefully reported," Marimow said.
"Our lead reporters, Angela Couloumbis and Craig McCoy, have interviewed many people with in-depth knowledge of the investigation, including members of Attorney General Kane's staff, in order to ensure that the stories are accurate, thorough, and fair," Marimow said. "These stories are the product of months of diligent and dogged reporting - not a leak from a person with a political agenda."
He added, "In my opinion, this is precisely the kind of issue that requires public scrutiny, specifically the conduct of public officials who accepted cash or gifts from an undercover agent and the quality of a three-year investigation launched and ended by a state law enforcement agency."
Sprague said that Kane had retained him Wednesday, after the editorial board meeting had been set.
He did not accuse anyone by name of seeking to harm the attorney general's reputation, but the reference was clear.
Frank G. Fina, the former deputy attorney general who headed the long-running corruption investigation, has been at odds with Kane for months over a series of issues.
In her 2012 campaign, Kane repeatedly criticized the way Fina and others had handled the Jerry Sandusky sex-crimes investigation under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, now governor.
After she took office, Kane fulfilled a campaign pledge by hiring a former federal prosecutor to review how Corbett's office had handled the Sandusky investigation.
In an interview after the meeting, Sprague said he was not planning to conduct a similar official investigation for the office of attorney general.
"I'm not being paid by the state," he said. "Whatever I get paid will come from her pocket."
In the meeting, Sprague promised that the Attorney General's Office would soon file a legal motion to make public key documents in the sting investigation.
The sting's key operative was Philadelphia lobbyist Tyron B. Ali, who agreed to go undercover in late 2010 and wear a body wire after he was charged with 2,088 counts of fraud involving $430,000 in funds from a state program intended to feed low-income children and seniors.
Once Ali was "flipped" and went undercover, the records in his case were sealed - barred from any public release.
While the court files apparently do not include transcripts of Ali's tapes, if released, they are expected to shed significant light on the sting operation.
People with knowledge of the inquiry said those caught on tape included four state representatives - Ronald Waters, who allegedly accepted multiple payments totaling $7,650; Vanessa Brown, who allegedly took $4,000; Michelle Brownlee, who allegedly received $3,500; and Louise Bishop, who allegedly accepted $1,500 - and a former Traffic Court judge, Thomasine Tynes.
Bishop has denied knowing Ali, or taking money from him. Brown has declined to comment. Brownlee has said she did not recall accepting money. Waters has said he might have accepted something for his birthday.
Tynes has acknowledged accepting a $2,000 bracelet from Ali but said she was initially unaware of its value. She said she tried to pay back Ali but could not find an address for him.
Sprague has a long and tangled history with The Inquirer, to which he alluded in the meeting. He has sued the paper for defamation and libel and represents two of its parent company's owners in a business dispute over control with their partners.