Pennsylvania state lawmaker gets probation in bribery case

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A state representative convicted of taking $4,000 in bribes from a confidential informant received probation Friday from a judge who was critical of the undercover investigation that snared her.

Democratic Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, of Philadelphia, was sentenced to 23 months of probation and ordered to repay the money to the state attorney general's office.

Neither Lowery Brown nor her defense attorney would say whether she intended to resign immediately. She was unopposed and won a sixth term in the Nov. 6 election, but officials say her felony bribery conviction makes her ineligible under the state constitution to hold office.

"I'm deeply sorry and extremely remorseful that my actions have taken me from my community," Lowery Brown told Judge Scott Evans.

She thanked the friends, family and supporters who packed the courtroom, and said, "I just take full responsibility for my actions."

Lowery Brown, 52, who represents a West Philadelphia district, is the sixth black elected official from that city to face legal consequences for their involvement with Tyron Ali, who had secretly been working for the attorney general's office.

Dauphin County prosecutor Michael Sprow argued for jail time, reminding the judge that she accepted $3,000 of the money while inside her state Capitol office.

"The public placed its trust in this defendant to serve with integrity ... and she failed to do so," Sprow said.

Prosecutors in the case previously netted guilty or no-contest pleas by four other onetime state lawmakers and a former traffic judge in the city, all Democrats, for taking cash or gifts from Ali. Three other sitting state lawmakers resigned as part of their pleas.

A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said his position is Lowery Brown's tenure as a state representative ended with her sentencing and she is not eligible to receive her salary or future pension and lifetime health care benefits.

Turzai spokesman Neal Lesher said he hoped Lowery Brown did not seek to begin her next term in January.

"We hope that she would not put everyone through that, but if she decides to, she likely would not be seated," Lesher said.

Lowery Brown defense attorney Patrick Casey had no response to Turzai.

"The issue of her seat is the next matter that she will get to," Casey said.

A jury convicted Lowery Brown in October of bribery, five counts of conflict of interest and failing to properly file a financial disclosure form. She said outside the courtroom before sentencing that she planned to appeal. She had no comment afterward and left the courtroom with a coat over her head to avoid being photographed.

Prosecutors persuaded a jury that she took the money in exchange for official favors, while her own lawyers had argued she was entrapped.

Defense attorney Jack Dempsey described her efforts on behalf of residents in what he called a "poor, heavily challenged district," including food and clothing drives, and noted she had been a single mother and was raising a granddaughter. He said she has a job offer from a west Philadelphia housing and community development nonprofit agency.

"She's just a wonderful person," character witness Bishop Benjamin F. Peterson Jr. told Evans. "She'll give you the shirt off her back. She has a heart of gold."

Lowery Brown told a grand jury in 2014 she knew taking the money was wrong. She had previously agreed to plead guilty but backed out and went to trial.

Then-state Attorney General Kathleen Kane abandoned the Ali-related investigation in 2013 after concluding it improperly targeted black officials, but the Philadelphia district attorney at the time, Seth Williams, revived the case.

MORE: Former AG Kane ordered to jail, 2 years after sentencing | Former DA Seth Williams gets 5 years in prison on bribery charge

Kane, who is white, and Williams, who is black, have both since been convicted of criminal offenses related to their offices. Both Democrats are currently serving time in a county jail and federal prison, respectively.

Evans said aspects of the investigation "were troubling, to say the least," referring to "racial overtones, political implications."

"I found much to be disturbing in this investigation," Evans said.

Casey said there was "significant evidence she was targeted based upon being a Democrat."

When Evans announced his sentence, Lowery Brown's supporters applauded and cheered "hallelujah."

Asked about the judge not ordering he jail time he sought, Sprow said he respected the judge's sentence.