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Porngate morphs into a 'Hot Ghetto Mess'

Racist emails open a window into minds of prosecutors.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

THE subject line read: HOT GHETTO MESS!

The Aug. 13, 2010, email, sent by then-Deputy Attorney General William Davis to fellow state prosecutors - including Marc Costanzo, John Flannery and Pat Blessington - contained more than two dozen images, mostly of black people, with derogatory, hateful and racist comments:

* A photo of a young black man in his underwear, perched atop an outdoor air-conditioning unit, paired with the words, HE BELONGS ON A FARM!

* A photo of a heavyset woman eating a drumstick with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken clutched in one arm. AND WHY IS SHE STILL EATING?

* A photo of three young black women, THE "NEW" THREE STOOGES.

This email - and scores of equally offensive ones - flowed from one computer inbox to another within the office of then-Attorney General Tom Corbett as state prosecutors were poised to unleash a confidential informant, Tyron Ali, on black politicians across the Philadelphia region.

The emails, made public over the summer, offer a window into the minds, and perhaps the hearts, of top prosecutors tasked with handling sensitive criminal cases.

"When you have prosecutors who are looking at emails entitled 'Hot ghetto mess,' how do we reconcile with that as an African- American?" City Councilwoman Cindy Bass asked yesterday. "How do I reconcile myself with the fact that [prosecutors] have circulated these sorts of emails, that [prosecutors] have pushed out this type of content and at the same time, [prosecutors] have a case file entitled 'Black Caucus' investigation and you are targeting African-American legislators and looking at them taking bribes?"

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams said these hateful and pornographic emails make him fear that his constituents could be treated unfairly in the justice system.

"You see these emails and these very people are in the courtroom with a woman, an immigrant, an African-American and a Latino, and how are they going to be treated fairly?" he asked.

"There is not a true balance to protect them."

Yesterday, by a voice vote, City Council members overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on District Attorney Seth Williams to fire prosecutors Costanzo, Blessington and Frank Fina, all of whom went to work for Williams after leaving the state Attorney General's Office.

Republican Councilmen David Oh and Brian O'Neill voted against the resolution. Oh said he had worked with Blessington from 1986 to 1988 and knew him to be a hard worker of good character. Oh noted that Blessington, although a recipient, did not send any of the racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails.

Yesterday, under mounting pressure, Williams put out a note informing staffers that he was transferring the three prosecutors. But Williams has insisted that he will not fire them, asserting that Fina, Costanzo and Blessington did not send or receive the emails while working for him.

Bass said she was pleased that Attorney General Kathleen Kane has hired a special prosecutor to review the emails and determine what role, if any, they played in the handling of criminal cases.

"We really just want to get to the bottom of it and get all the facts to restore the public's confidence in the District Attorney's Office," Bass said.

By July 2010, Ali was desperate to cut a deal with prosecutors in exchange for worming his way out of charges that he stole nearly $432,000 in taxpayer money that was meant to help feed poor children and the elderly. Fina ultimately would drop 2,088 criminal counts against Ali in exchange for his cooperation as a confidential informant.

Prosecutors seemed eager to work with Ali. On May 3, 2010, Flannery, then a senior deputy attorney general in the Criminal Law Division, wrote an email - subject line "Tyron Ali" - to fellow prosecutors Fina and Costanzo. (Flannery and Costanzo were among the recipients of the HOT GHETTO MESS! email in August 2010.)

In his email to Fina and Costanzo, Flannery wrote: "Ali is willing to work in any fashion that we desire including making consensual recordings . . . As Marc is aware, Ali is an extremely bright, articulate professional who is still able to move about in Philadelphia political circles despite his arrest. Ali has access to the Sheriff's Department, Clerk of Courts, numerous city council persons, judges and the black legislative caucus . . . As this is a political year with candidates looking to raise money for campaigns, this is a golden opportunity to take advantage of political greed and use Ali to develop substantial corruption cases."

Fina, who himself had sent racially inflammatory emails in 2009, read Flannery's May 2010 "Tyron Ali" email and then emailed two words to Costanzo: "Very subtle."

By October 2010, Ali was wired for sound and up and running in a cash-for-favors sting.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, a sponsor of the resolution calling on Seth Williams to fire the three prosecutors, said she was surprised to learn yesterday that Ali had taped four conversations with her. The Daily News showed her an attorney general-generated memo that lists her as an Ali "target."

Blackwell said she did not recall meeting or talking with Ali.

"I didn't even remember him coming in. I see so many people every day. I don't even remember meeting him and I don't even remember what he said," Blackwell said, with a slight laugh. "If he put out a hint, I didn't even catch it."

Ali recorded hours of tapes - 113 recordings in all - with black lawmakers and politicians from October 2010 through April 2012. The recorded conversations with Blackwell yielded no criminality.

Kane had dropped the case, saying she did not believe that it was prosecutable.

Bruce Beemer, acting chief deputy attorney general, wrote in a May 21, 2013, memo to Kane: "The 'investigation' has been unorthodox from the very start . . . If [the Attorney General's Office] were to undertake a prosecution at this point, it would be dealing with some enormous, fundamental flaws in trying to mount a successful prosecution."

Kane also cited an accusation that prosecutors had instructed a special agent to use Ali to focus on black lawmakers.

After Fina, Costanzo and Blessington went to work for the District Attorney's Office, Williams took up the Ali sting case and brought bribery-related and conflict-of-interest criminal charges against five former and current state representatives: Ron Waters, Harold James, Vanessa Lowery Brown, Michelle Brownlee and Louise Williams Bishop - all black, from the Philadelphia region.

This summer, Waters, James and Brownlee pleaded guilty in exchange for probation. Brown and Bishop are fighting the charges.

Brown is charged with taking five cash payments from Ali as part of an illegal quid-pro-quo relationship. Bishop is accused of accepting three cash payments totaling $1,500 from Ali.

A number of legislators, including a few white lawmakers, were mentioned in broad strokes in the May 21, 2013, memo from Beemer to Kane about the Ali case.

The majority of those lawmakers were never charged with a crime. Ali initially had told prosecutors that he knew of a "hotbed of fraud, theft and misappropriation" of government grant money, "totaling in the millions of dollars."

Ali had identified nine legislative districts, including that of Sen. Williams, who was incensed when he learned from the Daily News yesterday that his name and legislative district had been on an initial target list.

"To call it Porngate trivializes it. It's hate. That's really what it is. Hate," the state senator said.

"Words cannot describe how disgusted these set of facts make me feel, how afraid they make me feel for people who want to believe in a fair and blind judicial system.

"No one can claim that having misogynistic, racist, sexist conversations about people you have a responsibility over would not affect the judicial process.

"This shows that [the prosecutors] were so rabid about targeting certain types of people that they gave a deal to [Ali] who was charged with committing fraud in the amount of more than $400,000 and there's no penalty.

"Don't get me wrong. I don't support taking money. But for [Ali] to say to a state prosecutor that 'I know something is going on in these districts' without any validation or fact is scary. When I say scary, I mean that most Pennsylvanians live on modest incomes and don't have resources to fight a parking ticket, let alone a serious crime."

Neither William Davis nor John Flannery, both now in private practice and no longer with the state Attorney General's Office, returned phone calls from the Daily News yesterday. Ali hung up on a reporter seeking comment Wednesday.

Editor's Note: This story was revised to reflect that Councilman Brian O'Neill, not Dennis O'Brien, voted against a resolution calling for the firing of the embattled prosecutors.

- Staff writer William Bender

contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @wendyruderman