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Days after being sentenced for bribery and other crimes, State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D., Philadelphia) has refused to resign — even though Pennsylvania’s constitution prohibits convicted public officials from serving in the state legislature.
Brown, 52, was ordered Friday to serve 23 months probation for accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from an undercover operative in a sting investigation. As of late Monday, she had not submitted a letter of resignation from her $88,600 job, according to House officials. And it is unlikely that she will do so before Jan. 1, when lawmakers are to be sworn in for the new two-year session, according to people familiar with her plans.
Her refusal to leave office could set the stage for the House to refuse to seat Brown, who was reelected to another two-year term last month. It would be a rare rebuke.
Brown did not return calls seeking comment Monday. Neither did her lawyer, Patrick A. Casey.
In a statement, Casey and Brown’s two other lawyers from the Scranton-based firm of Myers, Brier & Kelly wrote: “The investigation and prosecution of Ms. Brown was tainted with both political and racist motives. Her resolve to fight for justice is undiminished.”
Casey also told reporters after Brown’s sentencing last week that she intends to appeal her conviction.
In the interim, her status as a lawmaker is murky. Dave Reddecliff, the House’s chief clerk, said Brown has not been paid for December (lawmakers are paid in advance for the month). And she is all but certain to lose her taxpayer-funded pension and health-care benefits due to her conviction – although she can petition for those to be reinstated if she is successful in her appeals.
But Brown still has a district office in West Philadelphia, where aides as late as Monday answered the phone identifying her as a state representative. Her new term is set to begin Jan. 1, the day when anyone elected or reelected to the legislature will be sworn into office at the state Capitol.
Republicans who hold the majority in the House have said privately that if Brown does not resign, they will move to block her from being seated. And Democrats have signaled that they will not oppose the effort.
Pennsylvania’s constitution states that legislators convicted of “embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime” are barred from serving in the legislature or holding any office “of trust or profit in this Commonwealth.” Generally, those convicted of corruption crimes have resigned on the day they are sentenced.
There are exceptions.
In the late 1990s, state Rep. Frank Serafini, a Republican from Lackawanna County convicted of perjury in connection with an illegal campaign finance reimbursement scheme, refused to step down after being sentenced to five months in prison. At the time, Serafini loudly proclaimed his innocence and insisted on remaining in office while he pursued his appeals. Democrats sought to expel him from the House, but Republicans, who held a slim majority, defeated the effort.
Newspaper accounts stated that Serafini was the first lawmaker in recent memory to remain in office after being sentenced for a crime that the state constitution explicitly defines as disqualifying from the General Assembly. Serafini eventually stepped down months before his term was to expire.
Brown’s case holds some similarities. The Democrat, who represents portions of West Philadelphia, was convicted of bribery, conflict-of-interest and other charges after taking cash payments totaling $4,000 from the sting’s undercover operative, Tyron B. Ali, in exchange for official favors. Bribery, like perjury, is among those crimes singled out in the state constitution as rendering a lawmaker ineligible for office.
In one instance, Brown accepted $2,000 in cash from Ali while in her Harrisburg office. She looked at the money, and declared: “Ooh, good looking! … Thank you twice.”
She initially agreed to plead guilty in the case, even providing testimony before a grand jury investigating the matter, during which she admitted she had taken the money and acknowledged that it was wrong, according to court documents. But in the summer of 2015, on the day she was scheduled to enter a guilty plea in court, she changed her mind.
Her lawyers have argued that the sting was deeply flawed and that Brown, who is African American, was targeted because of her race and politics — a contention vigorously denied by prosecutors. The judge in her case rejected those arguments in pretrial court motions but during her sentencing last Friday expressed concerns about what he called the “racial overtones” in the case.