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Kathleen Kane attacks the free press

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

How sadly ironic it is that as Sunshine Week closed, word came from Philadelphia, America's cradle of freedom and liberty, that Pennsylvania's chief law-enforcement officer sought to intimidate the free press.

Sunshine Week is that national annual exercise in media educating the public (and hopefully our “leaders”) about the necessity for transparency in government. Secrecy breeds distrust. The former sows tyranny. The latter, which sprouts from secrecy, can be the seedling of revolution.

Key to focusing the disinfecting rays of sunshine on government are news reporters acting in furtherance of the public's right to know. But Wednesday last, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane lawyered up with what appears to be a heavy dose of sunscreen in advance of a possible legal attack on not just her perceived political “enemies” but the media, too.

Ms. Kane apparently is none too happy with the reportage of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Sunday last it broke the story of a supposedly botched sting operation — begun in the closing days of Gov. Tom Corbett's tenure as AG and formally ended in the early days of Kane's watch — that targeted state legislators. A confidential informant — posing as a lobbyist, wearing a wire and waving around $20,000 in taxpayer cash — allegedly caught on tape four Democrat Philadelphia legislators accepting his tributes. A Philadelphia city official allegedly accepted a pricey bracelet.

Kane agrees there is evidence of illegalities. But she contends the case was fraught with legal jeopardy that likely would lead to prosecutory defeat. Among the problems cited — a decision to grant the informant a credibility-destroying special dispensation from thousands of fraud charges and concerns that the targeting was improperly race-based; most of those stung were black.

A memo obtained by the Trib's Brad Bumsted suggests the sting was to be expanded but that “manpower, security and financial concerns” precluded it.

Inside baseball permeates this story. There are whispers that those associated with the Jerry Sandusky serial child molestation case, an investigation now being investigated by Kane's office, leaked word of Kane's decision to not prosecute the secret sting case in retaliation.

Be that as it may, Kane showed up at an Inquirer editorial board meeting on Thursday (one she requested) with noted attorney Richard A. Sprague in tow. Kane is his private client (compensated out of her pockets, not the taxpayers') and would not speak, Mr. Sprague said. He suggested that The Inquirer had been, “wittingly or unwittingly,” duped by its sources and vowed “to take appropriate action on behalf of the attorney general against those responsible for the defamatory and false publications” (by The Inquirer and “others”) “that have been made.”

The Inquirer stands by its story. And as the newspaper reported Friday, “(Sprague) did not accuse anyone by name of seeking to harm the attorney general's reputation, but the reference was clear.”

And chilling for the cause of the free press. A sitting state attorney general — one who, at least now, appears to have the facts in the disputed prosecution on her side, no less — retains private counsel in a hardly tacit attempt to intimidate a newspaper. Not only does it smack of attempted official oppression in hoping to win a urination match with her political foes, it's incomprehensibly stupid.

Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or cmcnickle@tribweb.com).

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