Our opinion: Pa.bscam questions

From the little bit of information that has been made public, it has many of the earmarks of a mini-Abscam.

The operative in that sentence is “little bit,” since virtually all of the criminal court information pertaining to a sting operation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office that allegedly caught a number of Philadelphia area lawmakers taking bribes has been sealed.

The operation involved an alleged undercover operative named Tyron Ali of Philadelphia, who posed as a lobbyist and recorded five Philadelphia Democrats accepting cash or gifts.

The prosecution in the case was subsequently dropped by Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who inherited it from her predecessor. Kane maintains that her office cannot undertake the prosecution because the operation was flawed for reasons that include Ali’s credibility, possible racial targeting and lack of quality controls. In other words, Kane believes the sting was sloppy, and sloppy criminal investigations lead to acquittals.

With virtually all of the court records sealed, the public has only Kane’s opinion to go on.

The former Chief Deputy, who was the lead prosecutor in the case and is now with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, has a different opinion of the operation. He maintains it was carefully crafted and would have resulted in a strong case against those initial suspects and could have even ensnared others.

In an effort to help the Attorney General in her “continue(d) support for openness and transparency,” but more for the public’s right to know how and why this operation was created, operated and subsequently came to naught, a broad coalition of news organizations, including the The Associated Press and newspapers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and other cities have joined to ask the Dauphin County Court to open the criminal court records of Ali. They maintain that the public has a right to open court records under both the U.S. and Pennsylvania consitutions.

So do we.

Pennsylvania already has a pretty ignoble reputation for official malfeasance; it is not a stretch to believe that there may have been fire behind the smoke emanating from a long-term operation aimed at lawmakers who could have been on-the-take. And, if there wasn’t, we should know that, too.

For those who don’t remember Abscam, it was a sting operation undertaken by the FBI in the late 1970s and early ’80s that led to the conviction of a number of congressmen, a U.S. Senator and public officials from several states who were caught accepting money from a fake Middle Eastern shiek. That investigation, as well, was not without its flaws. And for those who would like a somewhat humorous account of the Abscam, though not a documentary, refer to last year’s film “American Hustle,” which states at its opening: “Some of this actually happened.”