Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has now secured four guilty pleas in the resurrected sting investigation, but have the punishments fit the crimes?

By pleading guilty to violating the state's conflict-of-interest law, the four defendants are now disgraced. The two state legislators in office at the time of their plea had to resign immediately, as required by the state constitution.

But former Traffic Court President Judge Thomasine Tynes and the former lawmakers - Michelle Brownlee, Harold James, and Ronald Waters - did not get hit with prison time or have to forfeit their annual government pensions, estimated at $54,000 to $85,000.

To critics, the deals seem unduly lenient, especially the failure to go after their taxpayer-financed retirement checks.

"These plea deals are the same as issuing a dividend check to a bank robber," said Eric Epstein, cofounder of the reform group Rock the Capital. "How screwed up is our system when a politician can break the law and receive a monthly dividend check from taxpayers?"

Williams says the pleas make sense.

"These are people who accepted responsibility and saved taxpayers the expense of lengthy jury trials," he said Friday.

He said the probationary sentences also reflected the defendants' "long careers of public service and otherwise exemplary records."

Pleas deals are hardly unprecedented; both prosecutors and defense lawyers like them for the way they take the risk and cost out of going to trial.

Late last year, for instance, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office agreed to a deal with former State Sen. LeAnna Washington, a Democrat from Philadelphia, under which she admitted violating the state's conflict-of-interest statute, but kept her pension.

Still, other prosecutors have taken a tougher line. Twenty-five years ago, three Philadelphia judges were imprisoned and lost their pensions for pocketing relatively small amounts - one accepted just $300 - from a Roofers' union official to fix cases.

The judges got prison time ranging from 18 months to two years after they gambled and took their federal cases to jury trials.

'Higher standard'

Philadelphia lawyer Richard Scheff, the lead prosecutor of the judges as an assistant U.S. attorney, said he had no qualms about seeking prison, regardless of the money extorted.

"We felt jail time was appropriate. I feel it was appropriate today," Scheff said. "I don't think those sentences were unduly harsh. Public servants, people in a special position of trust, are held to a higher standard."

As The Inquirer reported last year, Kane, a Democrat, secretly shut down the undercover sting in 2013, her first year in office, after inheriting it from her Republican predecessors. She said the cases were "flawed and not prosecutable."

Among other criticisms, Kane complained that the credibility of the key operative in the case, Tyron Ali, had been fatally undermined by a deal reached under the previous attorney general dropping all charges against him in a massive food-program fraud.

She also said the case might have been marred by racial targeting - an idea vehemently rejected by Williams. All those arrested are African American.

So far, Kane's fears about Ali's weakness as a witness seem irrelevant; he has not had to appear as a witness in any proceeding.

On the race issue, Williams said any trials would likely be hindered to some degree by Kane's blistering denunciations of the probe. Williams called that a "relevant concern," even though he has described her criticism as groundless.

"What she said was a reality, and I live in the real world," Williams said.

Philadelphia prosecutors initially charged the six Philadelphia Democrats implicated in the case with bribery, as well as with violating the state conflict-of-interest law.

Prosecutors said the accused accepted payments ranging from $1,500 to $8,750 as Ali pressured them to vote his way on legislation, or to help him win favors from government.

State Reps. Vanessa Lowery Brown and Louise Williams Bishop have not accepted plea deals. A lawyer for Bishop has asked a judge to dismiss her case, citing Kane's criticisms.

Under the plea deals with the four other defendants, prosecutors withdrew the bribery charges, but insisted they plead guilty to the conflict-of-interest offense.

Advisory state sentencing guidelines recommend that judges sentence people convicted of that crime to a punishment ranging from probation to nine months behind bars.

The precise charges pleaded to by the four were significant because the 1978 state statute governing the forfeiture of pensions for corruption enumerates specific crimes that trigger a loss - bribery, official oppression, and theft, among others - but does not specify conflict of interest.

Bills to add that offense to the list have languished in Harrisburg.

State Rep. Scott Petri, a Republican from Bucks County who is sponsoring such a measure, said it made no sense to leave the loophole in place.

"If you do something wrong, and it's in conjunction with your job," Petri said last week, "you shouldn't get your pension."

Rob Caruso, the head of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, said his panel has pushed for a number of years for an expansion of the forfeiture act.

But making the change, he said, "just doesn't seem to be a high priority" in the legislature.

The 1978 law strips pensions from people convicted of specific state crimes as well as for federal crimes that are "substantially the same."

The Tynes case

That requirement saved the pension of former Traffic Court Judge Tynes, who was separately sentenced in December for her convictions in two unrelated cases.

First, a federal judge sent her to prison for two years for a perjury conviction related to ticket-fixing. Two weeks later, a city judge gave her a 23-month sentence for a conflict-of-interest conviction for accepting a $2,000 bracelet in the sting case, but made it concurrent with the federal one.

Perjury is one of the enumerated crimes in the forfeiture law, but under a 1999 state appeals court ruling, the federal crime was deemed too unlike the state perjury statute to trigger a loss of retirement benefits. For example, the appeals court said, state law requires two adversarial witnesses to prove perjury, but the federal statute requires only one.

That meant Tynes, now in a federal prison in Texas, kept her estimated $68,000 yearly pension.



Plea deals and pensions. Graphic, A13.

Have voters had enough? Editorial, C4.