HARRISBURG - Taking a hard line, Democratic leaders in the state House have decided not to pay legal bills for four Philadelphia legislators alleged to have pocketed cash in a sting investigation.
In the past, both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders have often chosen to pay for criminal defense lawyers for lawmakers and staff caught up in corruption investigations up until they were formally charged.
State Rep. Frank Dermody, a veteran lawmaker from north of Pittsburgh who leads the Democrats in the GOP-controlled House, declined to comment, but the decision seems to reflect stark facts: Sources and investigative documents say the four Democrats were caught on video or audio accepting a total of $18,500, and did not report the gifts on their financial-disclosure forms.
Dermody's spokesman, Bill Patton, said last week that the payment of legal fees was "not an automatic provision of services the caucus provides."
"It's always been at the discretion of leadership," he said Friday.
On Thursday, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced the arrest of a former Traffic Court judge, Thomasine Tynes, on charges of bribery, conflict of interest, conspiracy, and financial-disclosure violations for accepting a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet from an undercover informant.
Without elaborating, Williams, a Democrat, said the charges against Tynes were "not the last" he would bring in connection with the sting.
Williams adopted the case after state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, also a Democrat, shut down the operation without bringing any charges. Kane said the investigation was poorly conceived and possibly tainted by racial targeting. Tynes and the four lawmakers are African American.
The four legislators are Vanessa Brown, alleged to have received $5,000; Michelle Brownlee, said to have received $2,000; Louise Bishop, said to have received $1,500; and Ronald G. Waters, said to have received $8,250.
Bishop has denied knowing undercover government agent Tyron B. Ali or taking money from him. Brown has declined to comment. Brownlee has said she did not recall accepting money. Waters has said he might have accepted something for his birthday. Tynes' lawyer said Ali improperly manipulated her.
All four legislators are up for reelection next month but do not face GOP opponents.
Patton, the spokesman for the House Democratic leadership, said none of the four had asked to have their legal fees covered.
"The House Democratic Caucus is not paying legal expenses for the legislators in this matter," he said. "The four legislators know that."
He would not elaborate, but another person familiar with the matter said the four were told early on - soon after The Inquirer broke the news about the aborted sting - that they would have to pay their own legal bills.
Bishop's lawyer, A. Charles Peruto Jr., said he had advised her not to ask for financial help. Peruto said another client, outgoing State Rep. J.P. Miranda, a Philadelphia Democrat facing corruption charges unrelated to the sting, had sought money for fees and been told, "They don't do that anymore."
Said Peruto: "They changed their policy."
Waters declined to comment Friday. Brown's lawyer, Luther E. Weaver III, could not be reached for comment. Nor could Brownlee.
The payment of legal fees for legislators and staff has long been a routine, if controversial, practice in Harrisburg.
In some cases, however, party leaders have avoided paying the fees.
In 2007, for example, Democratic leaders in the House fired seven aides implicated in the "Bonusgate" scandal months before charges were brought and paid no legal bills. However, the leaders approved legal help for other staffers who ended up being charged and convicted.
Advocates of the financial help say elected officials and legislative staffers who may have done nothing wrong and may never be charged should not have to dig into their own pockets for legal costs that emerge as a price of their employment.
That practice has come at a high cost to taxpayers. Over the last decade, taxpayers have paid at least $15 million to hire criminal defense lawyers in a succession of corruption investigations that convicted 30 legislators and aides.
Taxpayers, for instance, paid about $350,000 to provide legal help for former State House Rep. John M. Perzel, once the Republican leader in that chamber, before he was charged. He later pleaded guilty.
The public put up an estimated $1.4 million to hire lawyers for former State Sen. Robert J. Mellow, a once-powerful Democrat from Scranton.
Like the four Democratic legislators in the sting case, he was facing both a corruption investigation and a state ethics probe. He pleaded guilty in the federal probe and was cited for wrongdoing in the ethics probe.
As The Inquirer has reported, five state attorneys general have ignored a state law, passed in 1996, that gave them power to recoup legal fees upon the conviction of legislators and aides given legal help.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Kane, said Friday that she might invoke the law to recoup money from Mellow. He said a decision awaits a Supreme Court ruling that could provide guidance about the legal fees.
Abbott added: "Moving forward, the office does plan to be more aggressive about invoking this aspect of the law."