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Trooper off hook in bribery case

Wednesday, April 04, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

INDIANA, Pa. -- The state attorney general's office, stripped of key wiretap evidence, yesterday dropped its 2-year-old case against a state trooper accused of plotting to help a friend buy his way into the State Police Academy.

But Kipp Stanton, 31, a Donora resident who last served at the state police's Uniontown barracks, will remain suspended without pay while the force conducts its own internal investigation, state police spokesman Jack Lewis said yesterday.

In 1999, Stanton, then a five-year member of the state police force, was accused of offering to broker a series of bribes so that friend Dennis Bridge, now 37, of Indiana, Pa., could get into the academy and chase his dream job as a trooper.

Bribery seemed to be Bridge's only entree after he flubbed an entrance test.

Prosecutors charged Stanton with criminal conspiracy, attempted bribery and criminal solicitation. They based their case largely on wiretap tapes that they said had Stanton ironing out the deal with Bridge and a would-be middleman, Michael Fiore, 50, a Democratic committeeman from East Liberty. Fiore, it turned out, was working as a police informant.

Yesterday, though, Senior Deputy Attorney General Paul von Geis asked Indiana County Judge Gregory Olson for permission to withdraw the charges, throwing in the towel on a struggle that had started in August, when Olson ruled that the tapes, made by FBI investigators and usable under federal law, were illegal under state law.

"Without the crucial audio and videotaped corroboration of the conversations of informant Michael Fiore and co-conspirator Dennis Bridge with the defendant and between themselves, the commonwealth would be unable to substantiate the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," von Geis wrote in his request.

Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, would not comment on whether prosecutors might refile charges if state lawmakers amend the law that made the tapes unusable in a state court. Since the case was still at least a month from swearing in a jury, refiling charges would not constitute double jeopardy.

But Harley said the turn of events would not undo an ongoing conspiracy case against Bridge, who is awaiting trial.

"We're still confident we can go ahead," Harley said.

Stanton could not be reached yesterday for comment.

"He's happy the case was [withdrawn], but there was no other reaction," defense lawyer Bruce Ant-kowiak of Greensburg said yesterday.

For Stanton, the trial isn't over yet. The internal state police investigation could cost him his job.

"Or, if he's exonerated, he could end up getting back pay for the time he was off," Lewis said.

Bridge testified at Stanton's preliminary hearing in October 1999 that the trooper planned to use Fiore, a resident of the neighborhood where he grew up, as a conduit for the bribe.

Buying his way into the State Police Academy meant funneling $10,000 through Stanton to Fiore, Bridge testified.

From there, by Bridge's account, Fiore was to pass the cash on to state Rep. Joseph Preston Jr., D-East Liberty -- one figure in the case who knew nothing about the scheme, von Geis has said.

Fiore was the subject of an FBI investigation when he entered the case, Harley said. Court records don't reveal details of that probe but do quote investigators telling Stanton that it involved Fiore and his business, Mike's Auto Body.

How Fiore evolved from target to informant is never spelled out.

"Let's just say he was a confidential informant," Harley said.

Fiore took the case to investigators after Stanton contacted him. He then secretly tape-recorded a February 1999 meeting at his auto body shop where, affidavits say, Stanton showed up bearing a $1,000 down payment.

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