G - State Rep. Louise Bishop and her attorney were walking down the hallway in the Dauphin County Courthouse yesterday on their way to a pretrial hearing about whether Bishop was wrongfully targeted in an undercover sting because she is African-American.
That hearing never happened.
"Major change," defense attorney Chuck Peruto Jr. told a reporter just before entering the courtroom.
Instead of fighting charges that Bishop accepted $1,500 in bribes, Peruto dropped his accusation of racial targeting and unexpectedly announced that the West Philadelphia Democrat would plead no-contest and resign from the House seat she has held for nearly 27 years.
Peruto, after reviewing grand-jury testimony and other information that prosecutors provided, told the judge that his motion to have the case tossed because of racial concerns "has no viability."
"I want to apologize to anyone I might have offended," Peruto said.
Bishop, a minister and longtime gospel-radio host, pleaded no-contest - essentially a guilty plea without admitting guilt - to one misdemeanor count of failing to report $1,500 on her financial forms. She is expected to serve six months of probation, after which the charge can be expunged from her record.
"Six months from now, you will have no record with this entire ordeal," Peruto told Bishop.
End of story, right? Wrong!
The conviction of an 82-year-old state representative was probably the least significant political development yesterday in Harrisburg.
Bishop's case has become a proxy war between two government agencies. Specifically, between Frank Fina, a former star corruption prosecutor with a fondness for raunchy emails, and Kathleen Kane, the state's increasingly erratic and politically isolated attorney general.
Yesterday was a major victory for Fina, who had been reeling lately due to his highly publicized role in the Porngate email scandal. He recently was reassigned to a lower-profile unit in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office amid an uproar over racist or sexist emails he sent or received while working in the Attorney General's Office before Kane's arrival in 2013. Kane found the emails on her office's servers and has been wielding them against what she has described as an old-boys' network intent on taking her down.
But yesterday's courtroom shocker puts Kane back on the defensive.
Fina led the initial probe that caught Bishop and five other black Philadelphia elected officials accepting cash payments or jewelry from a lobbyist-turned-informant. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams revived the case after the Inquirer reported in early 2014 that Kane had secretly shut it down.
With Bishop's plea, five of the officials charged have now been convicted; state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown is awaiting trial.
Peruto dropped his racial-targeting motion - and his plan to drag Fina into court to testify yesterday - after reviewing testimony and other documentation from employees in the Attorney General's Office who concluded that the case was solid.
Outside the courtroom, Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson lashed out at Kane, who had wrongly claimed that the case was "non-prosecutable." He said that she manufactured the racism allegations to prevent Fina from getting credit for the case.
"I'm battin' a thousand here. You understand that? This was not a half-assed, dead-on-arrival investigation," said Gilson, who led the case once it was moved to Philadelphia. "I haven't even had a problem. These people show up at this hearing and they give up without a fight."
Gilson, visibly angry over how Kane has attempted to spin the case, said he has sworn testimony and other documentation showing that Kane's supervisors had told her to prosecute it or refer it to federal authorities or local prosecutors in Philadelphia or Dauphin County.
"Instead, she chose to shut it down, kill it and bury it," Gilson said.
Gilson said Kane didn't want Fina to "get the glory" from another successful corruption prosecution. Fina also worked on the so-called Bonusgate and Computergate corruption cases that led to the arrests of more than 30 politicians and staffers, as well as the prosecution of child predator Jerry Sandusky.
"It was a personal vendetta, as it always has been, against Frank Fina," Gilson said.
Regardless of whether race played a role in the current case, Fina's past emails have proved damaging. Among the Fina emails that Kane discovered were images that showed black men attacking a white man holding bucket of fried chicken. And, of course, there's porn.
Kane has been using such emails - somewhat effectively - as ammunition:
Several members of former Gov. Tom Corbett's administration caught up in the Porngate scandal were forced to resign, and state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery retired early when his emails surfaced. State Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin is fighting disciplinary charges related to emails that he sent and received that wound up on Kane's office servers.
Yesterday, Gilson hurled a grenade back in Kane's direction, saying that she and her twin sister, Ellen Granahan, were tied to controversial emails. Granahan heads the attorney general's Internet-predator section.
"When is Kathleen Kane going to release the 58 emails that her sister got? Or the 11 that were forwarded to her?" Gilson shouted to reporters in the courthouse lobby. "Every one of them has to be released!"
Gilson declined to reveal the content of the emails, saying: "Ask Kathleen Kane."
Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Brad Bender, who also worked on the sting prosecution, accused Kane, the state's top law-enforcement official, of "actively trying to help criminal defendants in this matter."
"The public should be outraged, as should the Legislature," Bender said.
Kane is facing criminal charges for alleging leaking confidential grand-jury information to a former Daily News reporter and lying about it as part of a plot to strike back at Fina. The state Supreme Court suspended her law license in September, and the state Senate has begun a rare process that could lead to her removal from office.
Asked after yesterday's hearing whether Kane would stand by her claim that the Bishop probe was tainted by racial targeting, Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said: "I believe she would."
Claude Thomas, a former state agent on the case who was at the courthouse yesterday, also let loose on Kane afterward.
"For whatever reason she decided to can the investigation, she did a great disservice to the citizens of the commonwealth," said Thomas, who is black.
"She made it totally up," Thomas said. "There was no racial angle to this whatsoever."
As for Bishop's plea, Peruto said he felt he could have convinced a jury to acquit her of accepting $1,500 in illegal payments based on $10,000 that she spent to help kids and other worthwhile causes.
But, he said, the sweetheart deal that prosecutors offered Bishop was too good to turn down.
"I have one horse in this race, and that's Louise Bishop," Peruto said. "And when I'm given an offer that I was given this morning, I need to go out now and have a drink to celebrate."