Over the weekend, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams criticized Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s decision to shut down a three-year investigation that caught at least five Pennsylvania Democrats taking bribes in exchange for votes and contracts—including voting against the state’s voter ID law. Williams’s criticism came in a Sunday op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer, in which he refuted Kane’s claim that the investigation was “poorly conceived, badly managed, and tainted by racism… [and] had targeted African Americans.”
On Kane’s allegations of racism, Williams, a black Democrat, wrote: “I am offended. I have seen racism. I know what it looks like. This isn’t it.” Williams, a highly accomplished and respected attorney, served as the President of the Black Caucus while at Penn State University and has been devoted his entire life to serving his Philadelphia community. The investigation’s lead agent, Claude Thomas, who is also African American, criticized Kane as well: “The assertion that I/we targeted African Americans is unequivocably and blatantly false. I did not target any persons by race, ethnicity or political affiliation.”
Attorney General Kane faulted the deal given to the investigation’s undercover informant, lobbyist Tyron B. Ali, as another reason for dropping the case. Ali agreed to work with investigators in 2009 after he was charged with 2,088 counts of fraud and related offenses. The charges were dropped in exchange for his cooperation. Williams rejected Kane’s belief that this deal “horrendously tainted” Ali’s credibility. In fact, Williams wrote in his Sunday op-ed: “As a DA, I think this might be the most disturbing aspect of the whole sordid spectacle. You don’t have to be a prosecutor to know that this is how it’s done.” Kane did not explain how the handling of Ali’s charges raised any questions about the authenticity of the more than 400 hours of video and audiotapes that Ali collected documenting the bribes.
Another disturbing development in this spectacle is that Attorney General Kane hired an attorney last week to pursue defamation charges against The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her attorney, Dick Sprague, said that Kane plans on “suing whoever was responsible for the malicious words.” As Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Kane should understand the protections afforded to the media under the First Amendment and the scrutiny to which any public official is—and ought to be—subjected. Kane’s attempt to squelch any criticism of her performance in office with litigation threats raises serious doubts about whether she has the proper disposition to hold any public position of trust.
Members of both political parties in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have expressed support for a bipartisan ethics investigation into the actions of the Democratic legislators accused of taking bribes. Such an investigation, however, should not serve as a substitute for criminal prosecution by the Attorney General. She has an absolute duty to enforce the law. If she can’t uphold that obligation, she should not be the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.