Armstrong: At 82, ex-state Rep. Louise Bishop has some regrets

Former state Rep. Louise Bishop has stayed out of the spotlight this year, if you don't count her weekly gospel radio show on WURD 900 AM.

When you're a public official, you can't just pocket a roll of bills that a lobbyist slips you, even if it's for a good cause.

Just ask former state Rep. Louise Bishop. She has paid a huge price for having done that and not reporting it on annual financial disclosure forms as legally required.

A year ago, Bishop resigned in disgrace after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of failing to record a donation from undercover informant Tyron Ali. She also agreed to six months' probation.

Bishop, 82, has stayed out of the spotlight this year, if you don't count her weekly gospel radio show on WURD 900 AM.

But last Thursday, I spoke with her at the office of her attorney, A. Charles Peruto Jr., in Center City. She wasted little time in addressing the cash she accepted from Ali:

It was rolled up when he put it in her hands. Bishop told me she had asked for the money to support an annual spring fling at Gompers Elementary School in Overbrook. She needed money to pay for face painters, bouncers, and other things for the event.

"If I had reported it, it would not have happened," she said of her March 2015 indictment.

Did you forget? I asked.

"I just do so many things at one time," Bishop replied. "I'm in the ministry. I'm preaching all over the city. I'm in radio. I'm broadcasting on the radio, and here I am as a legislator, where I'm in the House of Representatives where I drive back and forth [to Harrisburg] every single day."

Last month, it was announced that an investigation by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission had cleared Bishop of any ethical violations besides failing to report $1,500 she accepted from Ali.

On Thursday, Bishop looked older and more frail than I remembered. She smiled warmly, shook my hand, and mentioned something about our having met 20 years ago. Well, she was off by at least a decade.

I didn't correct her. I was too busy reflecting on how such a sweet-faced grandmother - who's also an ordained minister - had gotten into the controversial sting run by the state Attorney General's Office. Five Democrats were convicted as a result of a wide-ranging undercover operation that eventually led to the August conviction of then-State Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Bishop spoke of the hectic schedule she used to maintain when she did a daily radio show, preached and also went back and forth to Harrisburg.

"I did not sleep up there. I did not room up there. I did not have an apartment up there. But every morning we went, I was in my car," she said.

Peruto interjected that Bishop's secretaries had "yelled at her" numerous times about being sloppy with her record-keeping.

'Her bookkeeping is ridiculous'

"I'm not here to demean her. Her memory isn't the best," he said. "Her bookkeeping is ridiculous. But I have witnesses, the secretaries, who would say, they would find out from overhearing [Bishop] on the telephone that she gave this one money, that she gave that one money - $40, $60, $10, $90 . . . this went on for decades. This is not just something small."

Not up for debate is the fact that Bishop accepted cash from Ali.

"But when he asked her, 'We need you to vote for privatization of the liquor board,' " said Peruto, "she said on tape, 'I can't do that. My constituents aren't going to be buying these liquor stores. My constituents are the ones that work in the liquor stores . . . I can't do that. I'd love to help you if I could, sorry.' [Ali] never came back after that."

"Where's the bribe?" Peruto continued. "Where's the quid pro quo? Where's the pay to play? She said no to him well before she thought she was being taped."

After Ali gave her the money, she never saw him again.

"I tried to send a letter . . . thanking him for that. It returned. He wasn't even at the address that I thought he was at," Bishop recalled. "I never heard [from him] or saw him again after that one time he gave me the donation for the kids' event. Don't know where he is or what he's doing and don't care."

There's no love lost, as the saying goes, between her and Ali. Same thing with her and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who took up the investigation of the Democrats after Kane rejected it. Williams had attended nursery school with Bishop's daughter, and Bishop considered him a family friend.

"What goes around comes around," Bishop said. "He accused me for taking, but he took far more than what they offered me."

She was referring to Williams' having amended his statements of financial interest from 2010 to 2015, listing $160,050 in previously unreported gifts, including home repairs, air fare, and lodgings for vacations, cash, gift cards, and Eagles sideline passes.

Before Bishop's indictment, her political career had been largely unblemished, aside from having voted for that controversial late-night pay raise back in 2005.

Her failure to report Ali's payment cost her $6,000 in restitution and fines - and her dignity. Since resigning from office, she's been trying to move on, but it hasn't been easy, because we keep learning more disturbing details about the probe.

Earlier this month, word came that Ali reportedly had told an FBI agent that the state seemed "more interested in targeting Democrats than Republicans," which raises more questions about the case.

Meanwhile, Bishop has had health issues that she prefers not to discuss. She was hospitalized earlier this month, Peruto said. Reports that she has memory issues appear to be true, judging from our interview.

"How has my life been? I'm still a little embarrassed," she admitted. "I don't know if the embarassment will ever leave me."

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com