State rep has a secret: She's a convict

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State Rep. Leslie Acosta holds a pardoning process handout during an event she hosted with Lt. Gov. Mike Stack called Pathways to Pardons.

Running unopposed for reelection this fall, State Rep. Leslie Acosta has touted her work on behalf of constituents returning to society after serving terms in prison.

What she has failed to mention, however, is that months ago she became a convicted felon herself.

In March, the North Philadelphia Democrat and first Latina elected to the state House quietly pleaded guilty to playing a role in an embezzlement scheme allegedly involving her former boss at a Fairhill mental health clinic, where she worked before taking public office.

Federal prosecutors have not announced the conviction. Acosta hasn't told voters or her party's leaders. And her admission of guilt to one count of conspiring to commit money laundering remains under court seal - well past the filing deadlines for anyone who might have challenged her bid for a second term.

Acosta did not immediately return calls for comment about the case Friday. Her lawyer, Christopher Warren, said the representative would not have any statement.

"We look forward to addressing this matter in much greater detail in the future," he said.

Sources familiar with Acosta's plea agreement say she is cooperating in the prosecution of Renee Tartaglione, the former board president of the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic and a scion of a Philadelphia political dynasty.

But former prosecutors as well as Acosta's political rivals and allies questioned the decision by U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky to grant a sealing order on her plea even as she continues to campaign for a job she will almost certainly lose after a sentencing hearing scheduled for January.

"I had no idea. I know nothing about this," U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), chairman of the Philadelphia City Democratic Committee, told a reporter Friday. "Two people can keep a secret if one's dead. Maybe she figured if she didn't tell anybody it would keep people like you from finding out."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben declined to confirm or deny Acosta's plea or discuss the court's decision.

In a court hearing earlier this week, she said that the guilty pleas of cooperators in the Tartaglione case remained sealed for good reason.

"The witnesses have expressed security concerns to us," she told Slomsky. "We don't feel it appropriate to debate or litigate those concerns."

Warren also declined to discuss details of the sealing decision.

"To the extent that anything was sealed after the indictment, it was done at my request, rather than the government's," he said. "For us to comment further, might prejudice the ability of Renee Tartaglione to receive a fair trial. And that is something Rep. Acosta is unwilling to do."

Byzantine backstory

The case against Acosta, filed last year, was quietly unsealed the day she pleaded guilty but has received no public attention since.

Her crimes were committed years before she took public office. But they are mired in the ever-shifting, tribal alliances that have dominated politics for decades in North Philadelphia's Hispanic neighborhoods, including those Acosta now represents.

Acosta is the daughter of former State Rep. Ralph Acosta and Sandy Acosta, a former 19th Ward leader who unsuccessfully ran for her husband's office in the 1990s.

Tartaglione is the daughter of the city's former elections chief Margaret "Marge" Tartaglione, the sister of State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione (D., Phila.), and wife of Carlos Matos, the leader of the city's 19th Democratic Ward and an established fixture of its Hispanic political machine.

Matos served as chairman of Leslie Acosta's campaign in her first bid for office - a 2014 primary in which she ousted State Rep. J.P. Miranda, a one-term incumbent who had been under a cloud of felony charges of his own. (He later pleaded guilty to illegally routing money from his office's budget to his sister in a ghost-employee scheme.)

But now that they are on opposite sides of a criminal proceeding, the long and fruitful alliance between the Acostas and the Tartaglione-Matos clan appears to have come to an end.

Facing trial in November, Renee Tartaglione is charged with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the publicly funded clinic she founded with Matos in 2002 to serve low-income patients.

Prosecutors have not accused Acosta of personally benefiting from the theft.

But in pleading guilty, she admitted to knowingly aiding Tartaglione by accepting checks worth thousands of dollars from the clinic between 2008 and 2012 for work she did not perform. According to court filings, Acosta cashed the checks and kicked the money back to her former boss.

Several other clinic employees were also allegedly involved in similar activity, including Sandy Acosta, who worked as the clinic's administrator, and a billing agent, Amalia Rodriguez.

Both women pleaded guilty in still-sealed proceedings this year and are also believed to be cooperating with the investigation.

Tartaglione has denied any wrongdoing since her indictment was unsealed in January.

In court filings this week, her lawyer, William DeStefano, accused the women, though he did not mention them by name, of embezzling the funds themselves and conspiring to pin the blame on his client.

Contacted Friday, DeStefano said he could not confirm the involvement of the Acostas and Rodriguez in the case.

But he added: "The government is blindly accepting information from the coconspirators that is false."

No plans to step aside

Despite her looming sentencing date, Acosta has given no indication that she plans to resign or step aside.

The state constitution bars public officials from holding office if they have been convicted of felonies, but a conviction is not considered final until a sentence is imposed.

In recent weeks, Acosta has kept up a busy schedule focusing on anti-crime initiatives in her district and offering advice for ex-offenders transitioning back into society.

On Tuesday, she and Lt. Gov. Mike Stack hosted a seminar for ex-offenders in Philadelphia on how to apply for a pardon or expungement of a criminal record.

She had announced plans next month to host a "Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People Conference" with several other state legislators, including Vanessa Lowery Brown, who is awaiting trial on corruption-related charges of her own.

But as word of Acosta's plea spread Friday, advertisements for the event were removed from her website and social media accounts.

In Harrisburg, few were willing to discuss Acosta's future until a court made the details of her plea public. Party leadership on both sides of the aisle declined comment.

In Philadelphia, former federal prosecutor L. George Parry was less tight-lipped.

"I'm stunned," he said. "The public is entitled to know what's going on with their elected officials. It has to be one very, very powerful reason to keep something like this under seal."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608

@jeremyrroebuck