In just over a month, some voters in North Philadelphia will find a convicted felon on the ballot. And she will be their only pick for the post, though she’s not expected to remain in office long.
State Rep. Leslie Acosta, D-Philadelphia, quietly pleaded guilty to playing a role in an embezzlement scheme federal prosecutors say was hatched at a mental health nonprofit. The freshman lawmaker is slated for sentencing in mid-January. Legal experts say she’ll be out of office way before then.
Acosta’s colleagues can choose not to seat her when the body reconvenes, possibly before the New Year. And they likely will.
“From what has been said publicly, and what is being discussed privately, and at least as far as I have heard, nobody wants her there. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans,” said Philadelphia election lawyer Kevin Greenberg.
If that happens, ward leaders from both parties will handpick candidates to replace Acosta in a special election.
If lawmakers let Acosta stay in office, she’ll lose her seat anyway when she’s sentenced — unless her lawyers can convince a judge her crime doesn’t warrant removal, a tough task.
Asked what legal argument Acosta’s lawyers could make, Greenberg could only come up with one, novel, likely doomed pitch.
“The way the Pennsylvania Constitution is written, it does not automatically apply to a felony, by a court in Canada, or in California, or under the federal criminal code,” said Greenberg.
Christopher Warren, Acosta’s lawyer, declined comment. So did the Acosta, who replaced state Rep. Jose “J.P.” Miranda. He lost the seat after pleading guilty to hiring a “ghost” employee to funnel taxpayer dollars to his sister, who also pleaded guilty to the scheme.
In an interview after winning the Democratic primary, Acosta credited part of her victory to the cloud then hanging over Miranda’s head.
“This district is marginalized, it’s underserved and underrepresented,” said Acosta. “And so they hunger for that change and they were tired — tired of being lied to and tired of being cheated, and I think that’s what really motivated these people to vote in heavy numbers.”
Acosta pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Prosecutors said that while working at the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic in Northeast Philadelphia, Acosta helped co-workers steal hundred of thousands of dollars from the publicly funded nonprofit, including Renee Tartaglione, daughter of Margaret “Marge” Tartaglione, a former chairwoman of the City Commissioners who racked up a reputation for being politically powerful and outspoken during her time in office.
Acosta cashed checks between 2008 and 2012 and then sent the money to Tartaglione and others, according to court documents.
The government has not said that Acosta benefited from the scheme.
The younger Tartaglione, who was president of JCMHC’s board of directors, is scheduled for trial in November.