In Abandoned Sting Operation, Liquor Privatization Was Bait

Confidential informant pretended to be privatization advocate to ensnare officials.

Here’s a question about the abandoned sting that has Kathleen Kane in so much trouble these days: How close did it come to criminalizing normal political activity?

It’s a question that first started to lurk in our minds when the story first broke, with lurid tales of Democrats being given cash and gifts to vote against Voter ID laws they never, ever would’ve supported anyway. And the question grows stronger with today’s news from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review* that the confidential informant in the case often posed as a … proponent of liquor privatization.

* Watch out Inky! The Trib is hot on your heels on this story!

A Trinidad liquor producer sought to sell rum in Pennsylvania’s state-owned booze stores. Another company, thinking lawmakers might privatize the state stores, wanted to secure private retail licenses.

These fictitious entities were represented by an undercover informant posing as their lobbyist. Tyron B. Ali intended to get legislators to discuss properties in their districts that might become locations for private liquor stores. Investigators wanted to emphasize “personal gain and advancement,” says an internal memo the Tribune-Review obtained.

It was one of many cover stories Ali, a former lobbyist, needed to expand his sphere of influence and tap into the vast private market for liquor, wine and possibly beer sales — if privatization happened, according to the memo establishing guidelines for him from his law enforcement handlers.


Don’t get us wrong: The idea of politicians getting cash and gifts by virtue of their position is distasteful. During much of this period, though, those gifts were largely legal for legislators to take as long as they reported them.

Complicating all of this is that politics generally involves winners, losers, and the more-than-occasional tradeoff of interests. There is both arm-twisting and back-scratching, and God forbid most people ever see how the sausage is  made. Privatization is a particularly salient example of the phenomenon: If the state sells liquor stores, the new private owners will certainly be looking for “personal gain and advancement:” That’s the point!

There is new information coming out about the sting every day at this point; we may learn that authorities had reason to believe something pernicious was going on with privatization. But the more the story grows, the more it also seems that one of the big crimes occurring here was … politics.