Philly lawmaker resigns after being given 2-year probation sentence for bribery

State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown has represented West Philadelphia for a decade.

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Courtesy PA House; Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn
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Update: Dec. 11, 4:25 p.m.

State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown resigned her House seat Tuesday, more than a week after being sentenced to 23 months of probation for taking $4,000 in bribes.

Original post, updated Dec. 11, 11:35 a.m.

State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who has represented part of West Philadelphia for nearly a decade, was sentenced to 23 months of probation on Friday for taking $4,000 in bribes.

Years in the making, Brown’s conviction renders her ineligible to serve in public office, but she has yet to resign. The convicted lawmaker declined to comment outside the courtroom after sentencing.

Here’s what happens next for her 190th Pa. House District.

How did we get here?

To understand that we have to go all the way back to 2010, when the Pa. Office of Attorney General began using an informant — Harrisburg lobbyist Tyron Ali — to offer bribes to lawmakers. The sting implicated five Democratic state representatives and a traffic judge from Philadelphia

The four other lawmakers caught in the sting — Louise Williams Bishop, Michelle Brownlee, Harold James, and Ron Waters — have already pleaded guilty or no contest.

Former Attorney General Kathleen Kane declined to prosecute the lawmakers, saying the sting was flawed, the informant tainted, and the motive racially biased. Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who is black, criticized Kane and demanded she turn over the case files so his office could move forward with the prosecutions.

Both Kane and Williams later faced legal troubles of their own. Kane was convicted in 2016 for charges including perjury, while Williams was convicted in 2017 for bribery and corruption.

What happened at sentencing?

Dauphin County Judge Scott A. Evans sentenced Brown to 23 months probation and ordered her to pay $4,000 in restitution. While Evans commended the district attorney’s office for pursuing a case that wasn’t its own, he called many aspects of the investigation that led to Brown’s charges were “troubling, to say the least.” That included racial overtones, he said, and conflicting testimony given by the FBI.

“I found much to be disturbing in this investigation.”

With dozens of supporters in the courtroom, Brown told Evans, “I take full responsibility for my actions.”

“I wish I made better decisions,” she said, adding that even though she brought shame to her district, she was grateful her constituents stood by her.

Brown’s legal team plans to appeal the ruling.

Did Brown admit guilt?

Brown did not admit guilt in any of the charges before sentencing.

While prosecutors said Brown initially admitted wrongdoing, her lawyer contended the case was a classic example of entrapment.

Jurors in Dauphin County did not see it that way, and this fall found Brown guilty of five counts of conflict of interest, one count of bribery, and one count of statements of financial interest.

“The 10 years of good work that Vanessa did for her district still matters to many people but will be overshadowed by her conviction. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is,” Rep. Frank Dermody, the House minority leader, said in a statement. “She waged a long legal battle and mounted a defense against the charges, but the verdict rendered today means she must face the consequences.”

Wasn’t Brown just re-elected?

Brown appeared unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot and won 98.6 percent of the vote. She easily beat two other Democrats in the May primary.

While in office, Brown chaired the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, secured grants for the Haddington Health Center and Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse, and agitated for the removal of a Confederate flag on display in the capitol building. She also served as state director of the nonprofit Women in Government.

“I’m still the state rep,” Brown told the Philadelphia Tribune earlier this month. “I’m still serving my community.”

What happens now?

Per the Pennsylvania Constitution, a person convicted of bribery cannot hold public office. Brown will resign, her legal team told reporters outside the courtroom, but declined to provide a timeline.

Plea agreements with the other lawmakers convicted in the sting allowed them to keep their pensions and avoid prison. Prison time was a possibility for Brown. In a sentencing memo filed Wednesday, prosecutors argued against leniency as Brown “has failed to accept responsibility for her actions.” The District Attorney’s office also pointed to prison sentences for other lawmakers convicted of public corruption, including Kane and former state Sen. Vince Fumo.

“This defendant is no different,” the DA’s office wrote. “She deserves the same nature of punishment as the corrupt politicians before her.”

Brown’s sentencing was moved to Nov. 30, when she became eligible for a taxpayer-funded pension. But she likely won’t see a dime with a bribery conviction on her record.

What happens if Brown resigns?

Within 10 days of her resignation, House Speaker Mike Turzai will call a special election for her seat. Based on part special elections, it seems likely Brown’s seat would be up for grabs on the primary ballot in May 2019. Candidates would be selected by party leadership.

What if Brown doesn’t resign?

Dauphin County’s DA is suing Brown to force her to resign. She could also be expelled by a House vote. The earliest that could happen is January 2019.

Brown’s legal team, meanwhile, is pushing to have her conviction vacated. In a post-sentence motion, her attorneys use Judge Evans’ own words to argue that the investigation was flawed and that Brown was targeted as a member of the black caucus.

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