HARRISBURG - A member of the state House and a former colleague pleaded guilty to corruption charges Monday, bringing to three the number of Philadelphia Democrats convicted in the resurrected "sting" case.
State Rep. Ronald Waters, 65, and former Rep. Harold James, 72, accepted deals that spared them prison and meant they will likely keep their government pensions.
Waters, who resigned his seat immediately after Monday's hearing, pleaded guilty to nine counts of conflict of interest and was sentenced to 23 months on probation. He was ordered to pay $8,750 in restitution to the state - the amount in bribes he accepted - and $5,000 to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office for the cost of prosecution.
In court, the longtime legislator apologized to his constituents and said he regrets what he did.
"I got caught up and I don't know where my mind was," Waters told Judge Scott Arthur Evans of Dauphin County.
"I'm not trying to make any excuses," he added. "The only thing I ask is, please look at the whole man."
James, his voice barely audible, pleaded guilty to one count of conflict of interest. He was sentenced to 12 months' probation and ordered to pay $750 in restitution and $2,000 for the cost of prosecution.
Another defendant, State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, decided at the last minute not to enter a guilty plea, though she had signed a plea deal, prosecutors said.
Her lawyer, Michael J. Diamondstein, would not comment, saying only that "there are some issues that need to be resolved."
Brown, 48, is scheduled to reappear on July 13 in Dauphin County Court, where the case would be tried.
With Monday's pleas, three of six public officials, all Democrats from Philadelphia, have been convicted in the sting, during which a confidential informant offered cash or money orders in exchange for official favors. The case was resurrected last summer by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
As The Inquirer first reported last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, a Democrat, secretly ended the sting operation in 2013 without bringing any criminal charges.
She said the investigation was poorly handled and marred by a lack of a clear quid pro quo for the payments. She also said she had evidence that the undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali, had been ordered to focus only on African American targets.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson, who together with city prosecutor Brad Bender led the reinvestigation of the sting, said Monday that "there is not a scintilla of evidence that anyone was targeted."
"This was a case that the chief law enforcement officer for the State of Pennsylvania said was dead on arrival, non-prosecutable - and today, two defendants plead guilty," said Gilson. "I think that tells you everything you need to know about the strength and quality of this case."
With three guilty pleas in hand, Williams, also a Democrat, said the convictions showed that Kane had misjudged the merit of the sting investigation.
"Clearly," he said, "it was a prosecutable case."
Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said the attorney general "stands by her decision not to prosecute these African American legislators. She also stands by the grounds on which she made that decision."
Waters and James join the first person charged in the case by Williams' office - Thomasine Tynes, 72, a former Traffic Court judge - in entering guilty pleas.
Tynes, who accepted a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet from Ali, was sentenced to 23 months in prison, but that term is concurrent with the two-year federal prison term she is serving in an unrelated ticket-fixing case.
Besides Brown, two other members of the Philadelphia delegation to the state House charged in the case are still awaiting trial: Michelle Brownlee and Louise Williams Bishop.
Prosecutors have charged Brownlee, 59, with accepting $2,000 wrapped in a napkin during a walk with Ali outside a Harrisburg restaurant. She is scheduled to appear in Dauphin County Court next week.
Though Brown and Brownlee have yet to enter pleas, both have admitted wrongdoing in testimony before a grand jury, Williams has said.
So far, the only defendant to mount a defense is Bishop, 81.
Prosecutors say Ali gave Bishop a total of $1,500 during three meetings.
During the last exchange of cash, they say, Bishop was taped saying: "That's a great help. That's a biggie."
Her lawyer, A. Charles Peruto Jr., has subpoenaed six current or former members of the Attorney General's Office to testify Friday at a court hearing for Bishop. Peruto said last week that he hoped to prove Kane was correct in saying the case was tainted by racial prejudice. Peruto has not subpoenaed Kane.
Williams said Peruto's argument troubled him.
"I recognize he is just trying to represent a client. But it does a total disservice to the cause of criminal justice when people make false claims of racism," Williams said, "because the system historically has been full of racism, racist actions, and racist conclusions.
"So when rational and reasonable people throw that out there, it's really like throwing gasoline on a fire."
He said the sting informant and his handlers had thrown their net widely. He also noted that some officials, such as State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, a Democrat from North Philadelphia, had rejected overtures from the undercover operative.
"About half the people they spoke with were Democrats; half were Republicans. Half were black, half were white. Some were Hispanic," Williams said. "Some of them, like Curtis Thomas, told the confidential informant in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of the office."
Waters, first elected to his legislative seat 15 years ago, had been a quiet backbencher in Harrisburg. Despite the news of the sting, he breezed to his ninth term last November. He had no opponent in either the primary or the general election.
James, a former Philadelphia police officer, represented a South Philadelphia legislative district for almost two decades until 2008. He returned to the legislature in 2012 - the year he accepted the money from Ali - serving for six months to fill the unexpired term of a lawmaker who had resigned.
He is a former president of the Guardian Civic League, an organization for African American Philadelphia police officers.
Of six Democratic elected officials charged so far in the sting case, Waters accepted the most money: $8,750 in nine payments in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
After pocketing one payment of $1,000, Waters was captured on tape saying, "Happy birthday to Ron Waters."
James received two money orders worth a total of $750 in campaign contributions. Unlike Waters, he reported the money on his campaign-finance reports.
But prosecutors said James' corrupt intent was demonstrated when he reached out to the informant later and asked how he could help him while in office.