HARRISBURG — Jurors on Wednesday will begin weighing the fate of Democratic State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, deciding whether she was a politician so desperate for money that she readily accepted cash bribes or an unsuspecting victim of a "lethal human being."
The case a Dauphin County jury of seven women and five men will decide is the final chapter of a sweeping sting operation that the state Attorney General's Office ran from 2010 to 2012. The investigation divided the state's legal and political communities even as it resulted in guilty or no-contest pleas from five Philadelphia Democrats, including four legislators.
Brown, whose 190th District takes in portions of West Philadelphia, faces bribery and other charges for accepting $4,000 in 2011 from the sting's undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali. She was the only defendant to take a case to trial.
During closing arguments Tuesday afternoon, First Assistant District Attorney Michael A. Sprow told jurors that Brown admitted to a grand jury that heard evidence in the case that she knew she was committing a crime when she accepted from Ali envelopes stuffed with cash.
Brown understood there were "strings attached" to the money she received from Ali, Sprow told the jury. During those exchanges, she and Ali — who was posing as a lobbyist and secretly recording the conversations — discussed specific pieces of legislation and how she should vote on them.
"This was cash for votes," said Sprow, who is trying the case with Deputy District Attorney Ryan Shovlin.
Added Sprow: "The defendant is a grown woman. She made the decision to take this money. She made the decision to do something she knew was illegal. And it's time for her to be held accountable."
Brown's defense lawyer, Patrick A. Casey, countered that his client was a victim of an unscrupulous "con man," calling Ali a "lethal human being."
Ali pushed so hard to get Brown to break the law that he engaged in entrapment, Casey argued. And entrapment "is a complete defense to any of her actions in response to his conduct."
Casey said that the people who were supposed to be overseeing Ali — including the lead agent in the case — allowed him to operate virtually unchecked during the sting. Dozens of phone calls between Ali and his client were never recorded, said Casey, who also noted that the lead agent also did not prepare written summaries of Ali's interactions with Brown.
Prosecutors, Casey said, should have walked away from Brown after she rejected Ali's offer of cash during their first meeting, and told him to write a check.
"He is calling her … unsupervised, unrecorded, unwritten down," Casey told the jurors. "That should shock your conscience. That that predator is permitted to run his own investigation of this woman."
Sprow said that Brown may have initially rejected Ali's cash offer, but during that same meeting began scheming for Ali to funnel the money through a nonprofit to avoid detection. That conversation was recorded.
To prove entrapment, said Sprow, Brown would have to show that the government used methods so extreme that it induced her to commit a crime.
In Brown's case, said Sprow, her own words to the grand jury demonstrate clearly that she knew what she was doing was wrong.
"I am sorry. I never wanted to be in this position," she told the grand jury. "It was wrong. I accept full responsibility for what I've done."