Two state legislators from Philadelphia and a former colleague in the House were arrested Tuesday, bringing to six the number of city Democrats charged with corruption in an undercover sting operation that had been abandoned by Pennsylvania's attorney general.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced the arrests of State Reps. Louise Williams Bishop and Michelle Brownlee, and former Rep. Harold James. They were charged with bribery and conspiracy, among other offenses.
At a news conference, Williams, who took on an investigation that Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane had rejected, denounced her for publicly saying the case was weak and might have been tainted by racial targeting.
"Viscerally, it makes me sick," Williams said, referring to Kane's criticism of the former state prosecutors and agent who built the case and who now work for him.
Williams called Kane "her own worst enemy."
In Harrisburg, Kane said she had no comment on the arrests.
While Bishop refused to answer questions before a grand jury, Williams said, Brownlee and James admitted wrongdoing to jurors.
The arrests were the latest to stem from an undercover operation launched by state prosecutors in 2010, before Kane took office.
Tyron B. Ali, a lobbyist seeking leniency after an arrest on charges of stealing from a state food program, went undercover and taped elected officials as he handed them money, and asked for their support for a bogus legislative agenda.
As The Inquirer first reported in March 2014, Kane inherited the case when she took office, but quickly shut it down, saying it was poorly run and might have been tainted by racial considerations. All six Democrats arrested in the case are African American.
On Tuesday, the district attorney said he had known Bishop, 81, for many years, but could not let that sway him. "There are no free passes when it comes to corruption," Williams said.
Bishop accepted three cash payments totaling $1,500 from Ali, the grand jury found. Williams noted that Bishop denied knowing Ali when interviewed by Inquirer reporters last year.
"I wish I could help you," she said at the time. "Never met him."
Said Williams: "Those were all falsehoods. Rep. Bishop had known the lobbyist for years."
According to the grand jury, a legislative colleague of Bishop's testified that after The Inquirer story appeared, Bishop said she was trying to concoct a cover story for the money she pocketed.
In Brownlee's case, the grand jury said, Ali gradually won her over - though she had an inkling that he was not what he seemed.
While Brownlee knew about Ali's pending fraud case, the jury said, she became persuaded that he was legitimate, in part because his caricature was on the wall of the Palm restaurant, a Center City destination for the politically connected.
In the end, Brownlee, 58, accepted $2,000 from Ali, cash concealed in a napkin he handed to her as they went for a walk before dinner in Harrisburg, the grand jury said.
In their final meeting, Brownlee told the informant that her votes had to reflect her district's wishes on certain key issues, but on others, she could "vote any freaking way I want to vote."
Neither Brownlee nor Bishop reported the money on their public campaign-finance forms.
As for James, the grand jury said Ali handed him two money orders worth a total of $750, giving them to him while he was in a car parked on Delaware Avenue. James, 72, a former Philadelphia police officer, disclosed the money on his campaign-finance reports.
However, in 2012, shortly before his term expired, James reached out to the informant. He told Ali he had only a few weeks left in office and asked him if he needed anything done while James still had some power.
"Clearly," the jury wrote, "Rep. James knew that there were strings attached to the money he was given and intended to maintain the corrupt relationship."
The investigation - led by Assistant District Attorneys Mark Gilson and Brad Bender - is continuing, Gilson said Tuesday.
Of the six people arrested so far, all but Bishop have admitted wrongdoing, Williams said.
In December, the first person charged in the case - former Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes - pleaded guilty to a conflict-of-interest charge under a deal in which bribery and other offenses were dropped.
The other two officials arrested in the case are State Reps. Ronald G. Waters and Vanessa Lowery Brown. Waters accepted $8,750 in cash and Brown accepted $4,000, prosecutors say. Their cases are pending.