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Pa. Rep. Vanessa Brown gets probation for bribery in Philly sting case

Brown, 52, who has represented portions of West Philadelphia for almost a decade, also must resign from the state House, triggering an eventual election for her seat.

State Rep. Vanessa Brown (D.,Phila.) was the only defendant in a sting investigation to fight her case in court.
State Rep. Vanessa Brown (D.,Phila.) was the only defendant in a sting investigation to fight her case in court.Read moreAssociated Perss

HARRISBURG — State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, the last of six Philadelphia Democrats prosecuted in a politically fraught and now infamous bribery sting, was ordered Friday to serve 23 months' probation for taking $4,000 in bribes and violating state ethics laws.

Like most of her co-defendants, Brown avoided the prison term that prosecutors had sought. But her conviction likely will end her political career, which for nearly a decade has included representing a West Philadelphia state House district. She won reelection just weeks ago.

She has not yet resigned, but a special election to fill her seat could be held next year.

In a tearful speech, Brown, 52, told Dauphin County Court Judge Scott Evans that she was "deeply sorry and extremely remorseful that my actions have taken me from my community."

She went on to say that she felt responsible for her father's health issues and her mother's death from heart problems. Her mother, Brown said, told her shortly before she died that her heart broke when she read stories about the case.

"I just wish that I had made better decisions," Brown said.

The nearly hour-long sentencing marked the likely last step in a controversial case that roiled the Capitol and ensnared six Philadelphia Democrats. Brown was the only one to go to trial.

The case, in a roundabout way, also led to the downfall of former Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who this week began serving her own sentence at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility

The probe began nearly a decade ago, and then was secretly quashed by Kane after she was elected. She contended that it had been weakened by racial targeting and therefore was unlikely to lead to convictions — arguments that Brown's lawyers later unsuccessfully made. All of the defendants charged in the investigation were African American Democrats.

The judge on Friday noted the case's racial and political overtones and the corruption by others swept up in the probe. Evans said he considered those factors as well as what he described as conflicting testimony by some in the FBI and the use of a controversial undercover operative when considering which sentence to impose.

"There were so many aspects of this investigation that are troubling, to say the least," he said.

Brown's defense attorneys said they expect to file an appeal within a month, seeking to vacate her convictions. It is unclear how the appeal could impact her ability to hold office. One of her defense lawyers, John Dempsey, told the judge that Brown has a pending job offer from a community center in Philadelphia.

After the Inquirer revealed in 2014 that Kane had shut down the investigation, she slipped secret information to the media in an effort to smear a former state employee whom she blamed for the Inquirer report. She later lied to a grand jury investigating the leak and eventually was sentenced to 10 to 23 months in jail.

The original probe had been resurrected by then-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and led to guilty or no-contest pleas by five other officials — four former state representatives and a Traffic Court judge. All but one of the defendants — former Judge Thomasine Tynes, who went to prison in connection with this and an unrelated case — ultimately were sentenced to probation.

Brown's case eventually was transferred to Dauphin County.

Jurors in October heard how she had been recorded pocketing five bribe payments totaling $4,000. At one point, she was recorded looking at $2,000 in cash inside her Harrisburg office and saying, "Ooh, good looking! … Thank you twice."

The jury deliberated for four hours before convicting her of violating the state's conflict-of-interest law, accepting thousands of dollars in bribes, and failing to report the payments on her financial disclosure forms. Most of the charges are felonies.

Pennsylvania court rulings have established that elected state lawmakers convicted of certain felonies can't continue to hold office, making it common for them to resign on the day of their sentencing.

Spokespeople for House leaders said they had not received a resignation letter from Brown as of Friday afternoon.

As a result of her convictions, she also is expected to lose her pension and the lifetime benefits for which she otherwise would have qualified when she closed out her fifth two-year term in the state House on Friday.