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Pa. Supreme Court suspends Attorney General Kane's law license

| Monday, Sept. 21, 2015, 12:54 p.m.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane looks down as she reads a statement during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane looks down as she reads a statement during a news conference Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday suspended the law license of embattled Attorney General Kathleen Kane, setting up the potential for an unprecedented Senate vote to remove her from office.

But officials of both parties are proceeding cautiously. Neither the Republican-controlled Senate nor Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has decided what to do next, representatives said. Wolf has called for Kane, an accused felon, to resign.

An obscure constitutional provision allows the removal of a civil officer by a two-thirds Senate vote. That means the vote would need to be bipartisan. Senate GOP lawyers for weeks have been exploring the procedure.

Senate Republican General Counsel Drew Crompton said he's confident the Senate could proceed with removal without the governor initiating it. That does not mean it will happen.

“We are not going to act rashly, and anything that does happen, will be well vetted,” he said.

Kane, 49, of Scranton is charged with perjury, a felony, and seven misdemeanors, stemming from a grand jury leak last year of confidential information from 2009. Kane says she is innocent and intends to go to trial to prove it.

The court, in a 5-0 decision, said the order “should not be construed as removing (Kane) from elected office.”

The notion of an attorney general who can't practice law is “truly in uncharted territory,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.

Kane can't appear in court on a legal matter or sign legal pleadings, but she can perform administrative duties, said former Acting Attorney General Walter Cohen.

Bruce Beemer, the first deputy, will likely sign all legal documents, spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

“While I am disappointed in the court's action, I am grateful that the court recognized my constitutional rights both as a democratically elected official and as a citizen of the commonwealth,” Kane said in a statement. “The court, in specifically recognizing my continuing authority as Attorney General of the commonwealth, today allows me to continue the good works of this office: work which has transformed our war on sex crimes and fraud; work which will also root out the culture of misogyny and racially/religiously offensive behavior that has permeated law enforcement and members of the judiciary in this commonwealth for years.”

In an amended statement, she added in light of a Commonwealth Court hearing last week on Right to Know law requests, “I've instructed my office to engage in a comprehensive review of all emails sitting on (attorney general) servers to fully comply with the RTK (requests). Our preliminary review has generated emails of government officials, including law enforcement officials and judges, heretofore unknown to us. These emails will be fully released either as public documents defined by the Commonwealth Court, or at my discretion.”

Kane's courtroom defense has begun to emerge: the investigation of her was concocted by an “old boys network” threatened by her efforts to expose their transmission of pornography within the office.

Kane, who makes $158,764 a year, is the first Democrat and woman to be elected attorney general. She is the second attorney general in two decades to be charged with a crime. In 1995, former Attorney General Ernie Preate, a Republican, was sentenced to 11 months in prison after resigning and pleading guilty to mail fraud.

John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law school professor, said suspending Kane's law license is “an incredible and almost unthinkable development.”

Most of what the attorney general does is supervisory, Burkoff said. “But the dramatic psychological, emotional, and political impact of this order on the office and the AG herself has to be enormous,” he said.

The chief counsel for the state lawyer disciplinary board on Aug. 25 filed a complaint against Kane. The complaint calls it a conflict of interest for her to prosecute people while being a criminal defendant.

Kane challenged the proposed suspension on grounds that it violates her right to due process under the law.

In their filing, disciplinary board lawyers wrote that Kane committed “egregious conduct” that justifies suspending her license by authorizing a grand jury leak and failing to start an internal investigation once the story was published. Kane denies leaking confidential information. The emergency suspension provision is typically used against lawyers accused of stealing clients' money in an effort to prevent more pilfering.

Kane or any official would receive a Senate hearing before a removal vote, GOP spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said. If the Senate would approve removal by bipartisan supermajority, it would go to Wolf, who “shall” remove the official, based on the Constitution, Kocher said.

The complaint against Kane by Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, a Republican, painted the picture of a dysfunctional office marred by political intrigue and vindictiveness.

“This is war,” Kane told several aides of her approach to dealing with political enemies, according to the complaint.

Kane allegedly used her bodyguard and driver, former Dunmore police Chief Patrick Reese, to spy on other employees' email. Special Agent David Peifer helped Reese get into the email system at Kane's request. Reese allegedly accessed grand jury files and searched key words for items such as “subpoenas” and “transcripts.” He searched for reporters who wrote critically of Kane, the complaint said, as well as the grand jury judge, special prosecutor, and ex-Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who authorized an earlier grand investigation of Kane.

The statewide grand jury's report, recommending charges against Kane, was referred to Ferman for investigation.

Ferman charged Patrick Reese with indirect criminal contempt, saying he gained access to the files of the grand jury that was investigating Kane. Peifer was not charged and testified for the district attorney's office last month in a preliminary hearing in which Kane was held for trial.

A hearing for Reese is Dec. 7.

Kane authorized the leak of grand jury information in an effort to embarrass ex-Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina, who had declined to prosecute a former NAACP leader in Philadelphia, the complaint contends. She did so allegedly in retaliation for a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer that said she declined to prosecute black lawmakers videotaped taking cash.

Fina denies leaking the story.

Kane contended the case was legally flawed and targeted black legislators.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who hired Fina, took up the case and charged six officials with bribery. Three legislators and a former traffic court judge have pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, conflict of interest.

Kane denies leaking confidential grand jury information to the Philadelphia Daily News. J. Whyatt Mondesire, the ex-NAACP official at the center of the case, was not charged with a crime; regardless, he says his reputation was damaged by the leak and the story.

The documents filed by Ferman show Kane's hold on the office unraveling as many top aides were fired or resigned and feuds with former prosecutors and people on staff escalated.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter.

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