Sometimes, irony emerges with a Scranton flavor.
This time, it’s in the case of Vanessa Brown, the state representative from Philadelphia sentenced to 23 months probation for taking a $4,000 bribe in an undercover sting.
Her lawyers work for the Scranton law firm, Myers, Brier & Kelly, who defended her by borrowing an argument made by former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. As he defended state Sen. Robert J. Mellow in the Pennsylvania Turnpike corruption case several years ago, Dan Brier, a partner in the same firm, questioned Kane’s judgment.
First, you have to roll your eyes at any judge who would sentence a state legislator convicted of bribery by a jury – that’s right, convicted by a jury of her peers – to no jail time.
None, not one day.
“The investigation and prosecution of Ms. Brown was tainted with both political and racist motives. Her resolve to fight for justice in undiminished,” her Myers, Brier & Kelly lawyers wrote in a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
If this argument sounds familiar, it is.
Kane said basically that when she decided against prosecuting Brown and others in an undercover corruption sting developed by one of her former prosecutors, Frank Fina.
The Inky’s Angela Couloumbis wrote a story published today about how the state constitution bars legislators convicted of bribery from serving. Brown, who just got re-elected unopposed – that’s right, no one ran against her! – refuses to resign. Unofficial results show 22,644 Philadelphians voted Nov. 6 for a woman who a jury had already convicted.
In the turnpike case, Brier blew apart Kane’s state prosecution of Mellow after Mellow pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge.
Kane’s office charged Mellow with conspiracy, being part of a corrupt organization, commercial bribery, bid-rigging and other crimes in the turnpike case.
“Put simply, there is no crime and no basis to proceed any further with this flawed, vindictive and unconstitutional prosecution,” Brier and fellow Mellow lawyer Sal Cognetti Jr. wrote in a memorandum backing their motion to dismiss the charges against him.
Eventually, Kane’s prosecutor withdrew one charge and a judge threw out the rest.
Using his formidably funded campaign account, Mellow paid Cognetti $700,000 to defend him from federal and state criminal charges and Brier another $70,000.
More in a minute on Cognetti, who actually left the heavy lifting in the Mellow-turnpike case to Brier, whose brilliant cross-examination of witnesses at a preliminary hearing showed exposed the case’s shakiness.
The case against Mellow didn’t really hurt Kane. The case against Brown led her to jail.
In deciding against prosecuting Brown and others, including two other sitting Democratic legislators, Kane said the prosecution, led by Fina, was flawed because it was based on testimony from a witness charged with cheating a state food program for low-income children and senior citizens out of $430,000. It was also apparently racially motivated because all the defendants were black, Kane argued. She said that even though prosecutors had tape recordings with bribe-taking.
Kane’s decision to drop the prosecution remained a secret until the Inquirer wrote about it in March 2014.
In reaction to the story, Kane dared Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams to prosecute the case himself.
Williams, who is also black, had criticized her handling of the case and hired Fina and another former Kane prosecutor who work on it.
Williams took the case and prosecuted everybody Kane wouldn’t. They all pleaded guilty, except Brown, who lost at trial.
Kane believed Fina leaked her decision to shut down the case to the Inky and set out to get revenge by leaking grand jury details of a case Fina shut down. That led to her conviction. She got 10 to 23 months in the Montgomery County Prison.
So, in the eyes of the Myers, Brier & Kelly lawyers, Kane showed lousy judgment prosecuting Mellow, and great judgment not prosecuting Brown.
That’s standard defense law actually. Defense lawyers are supposed to use all the legal means at their disposal for their clients, but that doesn’t make what happened any less ironic.
As for Cognetti, today’s Inquirer story mentions how Brown isn’t the first state legislator who didn’t immediately resigned after sentencing.
Cognetti defend another – former state Rep. Frank Serafini, convicted in August 1999 of perjury. Sentenced in November 1999 to five months in prison, Serafini didn’t resign until February 2000.
One other thing. Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai will probably schedule a special election to replace Brown the same day he schedules one to replace the late State Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich.
UPDATE: One thing I forgot to mention: Dan Brier’s brother, Patrick, who acts of counsel for Myers, Brier & Kelly, talked Kane into running for attorney general.