Paper moves to unseal sting documents; others poised to join in

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane answers questions from the press about her involvement in Case File No. 36-622, after The Inquirer reports that she shut down an undercover investigation that captured five Philadelphia Democrats on tape. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )

HARRISBURG A Pittsburgh newspaper has gone to court to ask a judge to make public secret court records that detail an aborted sting investigation that targeted public officials.

The motion, filed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and unsealed Tuesday, said that absent "compelling reasons" for secrecy, the public and the press have a right to open court proceedings under the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions.

A broader coalition of news organizations, including The Inquirer, is expected to file a similar motion Wednesday in a move that Inquirer Editor William K. Marimow said was aimed at defending a "bedrock principle."

"The more that citizens can learn about the nature of the undercover operation and the attorney general's rationale for sealing the records, the better off citizens will be in terms of an informed public," Marimow said.

The Philadelphia Daily News; the Associated Press; the Morning Call, in Allentown; the Patriot-News and, in Harrisburg; Lancaster Newspapers, the publishers of the New Era and Journal; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; and NBC10 have agreed to join with The Inquirer in a bid to make the material public. The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition also is expected to join in the filing.

Before state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane shut down the sting, prosecutors had gathered evidence against five Philadelphia Democrats as undercover informant Tyron Ali captured them on tape accepting money or gifts, sources said.

While a spokesman for Kane has said, "We have supported unsealing these records," they so far remain sealed.

Asked Tuesday whether Kane would support, oppose, or take no position on the media bid to unseal the records, her press office replied: "Attorney General Kane continues to support openness and transparency. It is ultimately up to the judge to determine the status of the seal."

At issue are court records detailing the April 2009 arrest of lobbyist Ali on 2,088 counts of defrauding a state program of $430,000 to feed the hungry - and his subsequent undercover work over three years.

Shortly after Ali's arrest, records in the fraud case were placed under seal, accessible only to prosecutors, Ali and his lawyer, and Dauphin County Judge Todd A. Hoover. They remained sealed even after Kane dropped all charges against Ali in late 2013 after deciding not to pursue a case against the elected officials, using the tapes or his testimony.

After The Inquirer broke news of the sting, the sealed records and Kane's decision to end the probe, she publicly criticized the investigation as poorly managed and possibly marred by racial targeting.

She also said the sting was fatally compromised by the deal prosecutors offered Ali in exchange for his cooperation. Kane characterized the deal as overly generous, but said she had little choice but to uphold it.

Former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank G. Fina, the lead prosecutor in the case, has said the investigation was a carefully plotted probe that had built a strong case against its initial targets and could have been expanded to ensnare others.

While the Tribune-Review motion has been made public, more than a dozen other documents remain under seal.

In an order Tuesday, Hoover, the president judge of the Dauphin County bench, gave Kane and Ali's defense lawyer, Robert J. Levant, five days to respond to the newspaper's bid to intervene in the case and unseal the records.

Levant declined comment Tuesday.

Jim Cuddy Jr., managing editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, said an unsealing would empower the public.

"Our basic philosophy is, why not let people make their own decisions about who is telling the truth and who isn't?" Cuddy said.

Marimow, The Inquirer editor, made a similar point.

"If it's true, as the attorney general said, that public officials committed crimes, the public will be better served by understanding the details of what transpired over three years," Marimow said.

Sally Hale, the AP bureau chief in Philadelphia and president of the information coalition, said, "This is a very important case to the state of Pennsylvania."

She added: "I think the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve to know what's in the records."

The sealed documents in part detail a sharp disagreement between Levant and Kane over whether she had to drop the charges.

Kane's office told The Inquirer last week that she initially had "no intention" of giving Ali a pass under a deal struck by Fina before she took office. The office said she had "resisted doing so until late 2013," about nine months after taking office, when Levant filed an "enforcement order" with Hoover.

Kane has said she wanted to be open about the case.

"I am perfectly willing to make this case transparent as far as we can go according to the judge's order," she said at a March 17 news conference. "Because I think it's important that people know the truth."

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy