Philly sting case clouds state Attorney General Kane's political potential
HARRISBURG — “Top of the mornin' to you!”
Attorney General Kathleen Kane cheerfully greeted photographers and reporters for a St. Patrick's Day news conference. Yet it was anything but a good morning for Kane.
The state's first elected female Democratic attorney general hunkered down for two days earlier, working on explanations about why she did not prosecute five Philadelphia Democrats for taking cash and jewelry from an undercover informant who recorded their encounters.
The legislative sting, which Kane termed “so botched that this case was found unable to be prosecuted,” began under Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, now the state's governor.
“The evidence developed was inconsistent, underdeveloped and lacked focus,” Kane said.
Since the March weekend when news broke that Kane dropped the case, many of her arguments have been challenged — some contradicted — potentially damaging her political future, analysts say.
“She came into office with a high level of trust, and I think this has eroded that,” said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. “Right now, I think it has hurt her politically. It just looks really funny — people giving cash to elected officials?”
Kane questions the timing of the case becoming public knowledge.
Her aides believe it was an attempt to hurt her credibility before she releases a report on why it took Corbett nearly three years to charge former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky with molesting boys; her office has examined that case for 14 months. A jury convicted Sandusky in 2012 of 45 criminal counts.
Kane's handling of the sting case could have long-term implications. Analysts have mentioned her as a potential U.S. Senate candidate. People wonder whether any of the lawmakers who took money will be prosecuted or face House discipline or expulsion.
Others await the outcome of an unusual spat between prosecutors, and whether Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams will seek Kane's office in 2016.
‘Luster wears off'
Kane, 46, a mother of two boys, lives in Clarks Summit, north of Scranton. Her husband, Chris, works for the family trucking company, Kane is Able Inc.
She displays a good sense of humor and commanded lawmakers' attention during budget hearings. Her office on the top floor of Strawberry Square across from the Capitol has a panoramic view.
The night before her March 17 news conference, she sat among empty pizza boxes in the office during an interview with the Tribune-Review.
Kane surged ahead in the 2012 Democratic primary race, fueled by $2 million in family money for TV ads, and captured the party's nomination despite never holding elective office. She was an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County, one of fewer than a dozen prosecutors in a relatively small political arena.
She defeated former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy by pledging to be “a prosecutor, not a politician,” and was helped by former President Bill Clinton's endorsement.
In the general election, she defeated Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, the son-in-law of former Republican Attorney General Leroy Zimmerman and Corbett's handpicked candidate.
During her campaign, Kane pounced on buzz about how long Corbett took to investigate Sandusky's case and an alleged cover-up by Penn State administrators. She pledged to investigate whether Corbett slowed the case until he won the November 2010 election, which he denies.
As top vote-getter on the statewide ballot — winning more votes than President Obama — Kane became the Democrats' superstar.
But controversy dogged her first year.
Kane refused to defend Pennsylvania's law banning gay marriage when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit. She promoted her sister, a state prosecutor, to a better-paying job and hired her cousin as an executive assistant. She effectively halted Corbett's effort to privatize the state lottery by refusing to approve the legality of that decision.
She now seems defensive, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College.
“It seems like some of her actions have led to unfavorable situations,” Borick said, pointing to Kane's hiring of defamation lawyer Richard Sprague to accompany her to a meeting she requested with The Philadelphia Inquirer and refusing to answer questions.
“It's not uncommon to hit some speed bumps,” especially in the case of a relatively inexperienced politician, Borick said. “The question is whether she can regain control and accelerate her career.”
Every politician “goes through a time where the luster wears off,” noted J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.
The Fina factor
Central to Sandusky's prosecution was former Chief Deputy Attorney General Frank Fina, who supervised the legislative sting case with former informant Tyron B. Ali.
Kane's office blames Fina for leaking information about the case. The leak happened a month after the Trib reported that Kane's office reconstructed more than 20 million deleted emails for its eventual report on the Sandusky investigation, a top Kane aide said.
“I was not the leak for this story, and I didn't encourage anyone else to leak it,” Fina said last month.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said he trusts Kane's judgment and believes previous attorneys general botched the sting case.
“She decided it was not a good use of taxpayers' money,” Pashinski said. But he questions why Ali, who faced 2,088 fraud charges, “was let go scot-free. That's a hard one for me to accept.”
As lawmakers and others question what happened, Kane must deal with “a public relations and political problem,” said Larry Ceisler, a media strategist from Philadelphia. Her initial response — citing “racism, sexism and the ol' boys club” — sounded like campaign rhetoric and undercut her legal arguments, he said.
And Kane never explained why she took a libel lawyer to a meeting she requested with The Inquirer, Ceisler noted.
Sprague won a $34 million libel judgment against The Inquirer that was reduced on appeal to $24 million, and settled for an undisclosed amount, according to published reports. The Inquirer reported that Kane hired Sprague for a potential defamation lawsuit because of the newspaper's story on Kane's dismissal of the sting investigation.
Kane blamed Fina for an “extraordinary and lenient” agreement to dismiss charges against Ali if he cooperated with prosecutors, saying he gave Ali the “deal of the century.” Fina signed the document two months before she took office.
Then, more than a week after her public explanation, Kane acknowledged that she gave the final approval to dismiss Ali's charges. She said she had no choice when Ali's attorney sought action on a contract.
But she could have taken that to a judge, said former Acting Attorney General Walter Cohen, who supports many of Kane's arguments.
Prosecutors persuaded the smooth-talking Ali, who might have been a federal informant, to go undercover as a lobbyist. Fina's agreement refers to “exculpatory evidence” that tended to exonerate Ali on many charges. His day care center paid the state a significant share of the $430,000 he overbilled the Department of Education, sources said.
Robert Levant, Ali's attorney, could not be reached.
‘Do something good'
Political strategists are not certain whether Kane has truly damaged her political career.
“I think at this point the honeymoon is clearly over,” said Anthony May, a former aide to the late Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey and an executive with Triad Strategies in Harrisburg.
Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist whose Quantum Communications is involved in Corbett's campaign, said Kane's handling of the sting case raises doubts about “her competence … her credibility.”
“The tapestry she wove at her press conference has unraveled at every corner,” Gerow said.
May tells clients who encounter public relations crises, “If you did something bad, do something good.” For Kane, that might mean announcing another public corruption case or releasing the Penn State report, even though it is not a criminal investigation.
“The big shoe that could drop is her report in the Sandusky case,” May said.
The timing of that report's release is critical, said Widener University's Leckrone. If her office releases it in August or September and attacks Corbett, the likely GOP nominee for governor in November, it will appear politically motivated, he said.
Kane's office won't say when it will be released.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.