Prosecutors: Pa. lawmaker admitted she broke the law
State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown told prosecutors that the pressure of raising campaign money was so great, that she "succumbed" and broke the law.
HARRISBURG — The pressure of raising campaign money was intense — so intense, State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown said, that it led her to break the law.
Brown made those statements to a grand jury investigating her and other Philadelphia Democrats caught up in a sweeping sting probe run by the state Attorney General's Office between 2010 and 2012. And on Friday, they were read to the jury of seven women and five men who will decide whether Brown should be convicted of bribery, conspiracy, and other charges in her public corruption trial in Dauphin County.
"I am sorry. I am sorry. … There is just pressure all the time," Brown told the grand jury. "And folks look at you by the amount of money you can raise. … The pressure is too much. I succumbed to the pressure of it all."
Brown, a Democrat who represents portions of West Philadelphia, is accused of accepting $4,000 in 2011 from the sting's undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali, who posed as a lobbyist and offered money and gifts to elected officials.
Prosecutors say she willingly accepted envelopes stuffed with cash in exchange for official favors. Her attorney is countering that she was a victim of entrapment.
During statements she made to a grand jury in December 2014, however, she acknowledged to prosecutors that she understood that accepting the money was wrong.
"Let's be clear about this, Ms. Brown — when you were taking this money from Mr. Ali, and you were meeting with him and talking to him, you knew that you were breaking the law and that you were committing various legal violations — and you did it, correct?" she was asked by a prosecutor at the time.
"Yes," Brown responded.
Brown initially agreed to plead guilty in the case, but changed her mind on the day she was to appear before a judge to formalize it. It is not known whether she plans to take the stand when the trial resumes next week.
Earlier in the day, Ali wrapped up his much-anticipated testimony, answering a barrage of questions about his past — including criminal charges in a massive fraud case and multiple lawsuits accusing him of fraudulent business deals — from Brown's defense lawyer, Patrick A. Casey.
Ali began cooperating with state prosecutors after he was charged in 2009 with over 2,000 counts of forgery, theft, and other crimes. At the time, prosecutors alleged he bilked $430,000 in taxpayer dollars that were intended to provide meals for low-income children and seniors at a child-care center he operated in North Philadelphia. State prosecutors eventually dropped all charges in the case.
Frank Fina, the onetime state prosecutor who oversaw the sting investigation, took the stand Friday to explain that the sting was launched "to explore the role of money in politics in Pennsylvania." He also said that the initial case against Ali was far overblown, and that a later review by his office pinpointed most of the money that Ali was alleged to have stolen.
Fina's turn on the stand had also been highly anticipated. Brown's legal team has argued that Fina's sting targeted elected officials based on their political affiliation and their race (a judge later dismissed those assertions).
On Friday, Fina was not asked to provide details about the investigation, nor was he questioned about allegations of ethics violations he faces before the state's legal disciplinary board involving a different case.
He also was not asked about former state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who secretly shut down the sting after she took office in 2013 — a decision that set off a fierce, years-long war of words in legal and political circles about the merits of the case.