Guilty, but reelected, Rep. Acosta finds a chill at the Capitol
HARRISBURG - Rep. Leslie Acosta returned to Harrisburg this week. No one seemed happy to see her. The North Philadelphia Democrat, who secretly pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge this year and yet was reelected on Nov. 8, received an icy reception at her first extended visit to the Capitol since the Inquirer exposed her legal troubles in September.
HARRISBURG - Rep. Leslie Acosta returned to Harrisburg this week. No one seemed happy to see her.
The North Philadelphia Democrat, who secretly pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge this year and yet was reelected on Nov. 8, received an icy reception at her first extended visit to the Capitol since the Inquirer exposed her legal troubles in September.
Members of the Philadelphia delegation unceremoniously asked her to leave. One accused her of wearing a wire for federal investigators.
And though she had previously vowed to launch a legal bid to keep her seat even after she is sentenced next spring, her colleagues made clear they had little desire to help her stay.
"She chose to plead guilty," Rep. Ed Neilson (D., Phila.) said Thursday. "And when she did, she should have been up front with her constituents. She defrauded the public, her constituents, everybody."
Acosta, on the advice of her lawyer, has not spoken publicly about her case since she pleaded guilty in a sealed proceeding in March to one felony count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Since then, she has clung to her office and its $85,000 salary - setting up a potential ugly showdown if she returns Jan. 3 to be sworn in for a second term.
The state constitution bars public officials from holding office if they have been convicted of felonies, but that process that is not considered complete until a sentence is imposed.
For weeks, representatives on both sides of the aisle have been discussing an attempt to boot her before then, with a vote to refuse to seat her for the next legislative session. Such a rebuke has not been used in more than two decades.
A special election would be called to replace Acosta if she resigns or is forced out of her seat. But her crime - and her explanation for why she wants to stay in office until early next year - is mired in the tortured tribal alliances that have dominated politics in her North Philadelphia district for decades.
The tension boiled over Tuesday as legislators trickled back to the Capitol to choose their leaders for the next legislative session.
Acosta, through her lawyer, said she was summoned to the gathering of the Philadelphia delegation. But as soon as she entered the closed-door meeting, the mood in the room grew awkward, according to several lawmakers who attended.
"There was an uncomfortable silence," said Rep. Michael O'Brien (D., Phila.).
A few seconds later, Neilson looked around at his colleagues and said, "If you're not going to do something, I will."
Recounting it Thursday, Neilson said he told Acosta she wasn't welcome and that for all he knew, she was "wired up" to gain more favor with prosecutors before sentencing.
"It's in the back of plenty of people's heads," he said. "It just came out of my mouth in the heat of the moment."
Moments later, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) asked Acosta to step out of the room to speak with him. She never returned.
Acosta, through her lawyer, Christopher Warren, largely confirmed that account but said that she wasn't kicked out of the meeting and that it was another legislator who accused her of wearing a wire.
Warren said that she intends to resign her office sometime in January, but that he did not know if she would do so before her swearing-in date.
"She would like to ensure that whoever replaces her is independent of the political party bosses," he said. "That's the fight that's going on right now."
Her criminal case involves an embezzlement scheme allegedly involving Renee Tartaglione, scion of a Northeast Philadelphia political dynasty and Acosta's former boss at the Fairhill mental health clinic, where she worked prior to taking office.
Tartaglione is accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Juniata Mental Health Clinic, a facility she founded with her husband in 2002 to serve low-income patients.
Prosecutors have not accused Acosta of personally benefiting from the theft, and say her crimes occurred years before she took public office.
But in pleading guilty in March, she admitted to helping Tartaglione by accepting checks worth thousands of dollars from the publicly funded clinic between 2008 and 2012 for work she did not perform. She later cashed them and kicked the money back to her former boss.
Acosta admitted her role in the scheme early on and has been cooperating since, according to sources familiar with the investigation. She is expected to testify at Tartaglione's trial in January. But her decision to do so helped end a long and fruitful alliance between the Acosta and Tartaglione clans.
Tartaglione - daughter of the city's former elections chief, Margaret Tartaglione, and sister of Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione (D., Phila.) - maintains her innocence.
She says Acosta and her mother, Sandy - ex-wife of former Rep. Ralph Acosta and a former administrator at the Juniata clinic - stole the money themselves and are attempting to pin the blame on her. Sandy Acosta has pleaded guilty to her role in the plot and is also expected to testify against Tartaglione.
Leslie Acosta blames her icy reception Tuesday in Harrisburg on Renee Tartaglione's husband, Carlos Matos, the leader of the city's 19th Democratic Ward and campaign chairman for her first bid for office in 2014.
He was not charged in his wife's case, but prosecutors have described Matos in court filings as a coconspirator in her alleged crimes and say he "remains in jeopardy of being indicted."
Despite Matos' entanglement in his wife's legal woes and his own past troubles - he served three years in federal prison for bribing public officials - he has been heavily involved in the jockeying over who should replace Acosta once she leaves office.
In an interview Thursday, Acosta's lawyer accused Matos and an ally - State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.), leader of the Seventh Democratic Ward - of seeking to install "a crony" loyal to them in her seat. Warren asserted they engineered the Harrisburg confrontation between Acosta and members of the Philadelphia delegation to hasten that process.
Neither man returned calls for comment Thursday.
"How Matos dodged an indictment in this case is the greatest mystery since the riddle of the Sphinx," Warren said Thursday. "She wants to take the power out of Matos' and Cruz's hands and put it in the hands of the electorate."
Until she resigns or is removed, Warren said, Acosta intends to continue her work for her constituents.
Since Election Day, she has highlighted several of her public appearances on her Facebook page, including one at a breast cancer screening she hosted in her district.
Below the gallery of photos from that event, a single comment was posted: "When are you going to resign?"