Corruption case against Pa. lawmaker delayed for years

VanessaBrown-22092017-0001
In the three years since State Rep. Vanessa Brown (D., Philadelphia) was charged in a high-profile corruption sting, her trial has been postponed repeatedly.

HARRISBURG — In the nearly three years since State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown was charged in a high-profile bribery case, the West Philadelphia Democrat’s trial has been postponed nearly a dozen times.

In that time, Brown has voted on three state budgets involving more than $60 billion, sponsored or cosponsored more than 1,100 bills and resolutions, and collected more than $225,000 in legislative pay.

Though there is a hearing next month in Dauphin County — where Brown’s lawyers have subpoenaed Philadelphia District Attorney-turned-federal prisoner Seth Williams to appear in court — a stack of legal objections she has raised about the prosecution has yet to be decided by the Dauphin County judge overseeing her case.

The delay, veteran lawyers say, is almost unprecedented, particularly in a corruption case involving a sitting elected official accused of abusing her office.

And there is a cost to it, said Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson, the case’s lead prosecutor.

He said any indicted elected state officials who decide policies and laws not just for their own constituents but for “the entire state” should be “brought to trial as quickly as possible and, if found guilty, removed from office.”

In an interview last week, Brown’s lawyer, Patrick A. Casey, countered that prosecutors have no one to blame but themselves.

“This case has an exceptional number of unusual problems created by the prosecution, from serious issues of selective prosecution to ethical conflicts of interests,” said Casey, a lawyer with the Scranton-based firm Myers Brier & Kelly. “I don’t think the delay here is very exceptional when one considers the magnitude of issues that are in existence.”

Dauphin County Judge Scott A. Evans, who is presiding over Brown’s case, did not return a call seeking comment.

Brown, 51, is the last remaining defendant in a sting investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office that began in 2010 and deployed an undercover operative posing as a lobbyist to shower legislators with cash in return for official favors. The informant, Tyron Ali, recorded dozens of conversations and exchanges over nearly three years.

After the Inquirer reported that former Attorney General Kathleen Kane secretly shut down the investigation after taking office in 2013, the case was resurrected by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office under Williams.

In all, Williams’ office charged six public officials, including Brown, in late 2014 and early 2015. Five have pleaded guilty or no contest and their cases have been closed. Of those, three were sitting Democratic House members from Philadelphia who resigned from office as part of their pleas that allowed them to keep their government pensions.

State law allows Brown and other elected officials accused of crimes to remain in office through their trials. If they are convicted, they are only required to resign on the day of their sentencing.

Brown’s conspiracy, bribery, and conflict-of-interest charges were filed in December 2014, after prosecutors accused her of taking $4,000 in cash from Ali in five installments.

In one instance, Brown accepted $2,000 in cash from Ali while in her Harrisburg office. She looked at the money, and declared: “Ooh, good looking! … Thank you twice.”

Brown did not return a call seeking comment last week.

She initially agreed to plead guilty in the case, even providing testimony before the grand jury in Philadelphia during which she admitted she had taken the money and acknowledged that it was wrong, according to court documents.

But in the summer of 2015, on the day she was expected to enter a guilty plea in court, she changed her mind.

Since then, her trial has been rescheduled 11 times, as her lawyer has raised a long list of legal issues that have lingered for months.

Among other attempts to have the case dismissed, Brown’s defense filed a motion in December 2015 that she and the other defendants in the case had been targeted because of their political affiliation and because they were African American — a contention vigorously denied by prosecutors.

Evans has yet to rule on the motion, among a half dozen others.

Among those unresolved issues: a motion to disqualify prosecutors in the case for an alleged conflict of interest. Casey has argued that Williams, who was under federal investigation for bribery while his office was prosecuting the sting case, had sought legal advice from Ali’s lawyer, Robert Levant.

Williams pleaded guilty to a corruption charge midway through his federal bribery trial earlier this year and was immediately jailed. He is awaiting sentencing.

Another half dozen motions, some of them related, also are awaiting action by Evans.

Other cases involving political figures in recent years have moved much more swiftly.

Williams, for instance, went on trial three months after his indictment. The judge in his case, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond, put it this way: “I am hard-pressed to think of a case where the public’s right to a speedy trial is more pressing than it is here.”

Kane, the former attorney general who shut down the sting investigation, went on trial exactly one year after being charged with perjury and other offenses for leaking confidential information about former prosecutors in her office whom she believed were behind the Inquirer’s story about the sting. She was found guilty and sentenced to jail time but is appealing her conviction.

Bruce Ledewitz, a professor and director of the Pennsylvania Constitution Website at Duquesne University’s law school, noted that other high-profile cases with complex legal issues have taken years to reach trial.

Though it did not involve elected officials, the child sexual-abuse cover-up case against former Pennsylvania State University president Graham Spanier and two other onetime university administrators took 5½ years to get before a jury.

Though it is important to swiftly resolve cases involving the public trust, said Ledewitz, it’s “also important to trial judges to get it right.”

“The trial judge has to be careful about making a precedent,” said Ledewitz. “It’s not just about one defendant.”

He added: “You can’t get that one wrong.”

As for Brown, she was just recently selected to serve on the executive board of a national organization’s professional development panel.

In that role, she will work to empower female legislators across the country.