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Porn, Emails And Criminal Charges: Scandal Embroils Pennsylvania's Legal Community

Facing perjury charges and with her legal license suspended, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is due in court Thursday to discuss her claim that a judge leaked grand jury information. Matt Rourke/AP hide caption

toggle caption Matt Rourke/AP

Facing perjury charges and with her legal license suspended, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane is due in court Thursday to discuss her claim that a judge leaked grand jury information.

Matt Rourke/AP

The political tempest that has for months swirled around Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane will touch down in a courtroom Thursday, when Kane is questioned about her allegations that a judge leaked sealed documents about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case.

As Kane testifies, she's also under fire from all three branches of her state's government: the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has suspended her law license, prompting legislators to say she's unfit for her office; the governor has said she should resign.

The court date is the latest development in a scandal that has gripped Pennsylvania, as Kane went from investigating potential lapses in officials' handling of the Sandusky case to being the subject of a criminal investigation herself — and to the release of a trove of emails that she says sparked the case against her, after high-ranking officials were embarrassed by documents that showed they had used official email accounts to trade pornographic and bigoted images and jokes.

Describing the tone in Pennsylvania these days, John Morganelli, the Democratic district attorney in Northampton County, tells the AP: "It's a mess. It's just a freaking mess." He later adds: "And it gets worse every day. It's like going into a war zone."

On Wednesday, Senior Northumberland County Judge Barry Feudale "called upon any of a number of authorities — including Gov. Tom Wolf, the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court, the State Ethics Commission and the FBI — to remove Kane from office," Penn Live reports.

In that request, Feudale wrote: "I ask you to end this legal and institutional nightmare by removing her from office as soon as possible."

The judge also recently said that "Kane or her agents were behind the break-in of a grand jury judge's office in 2013 in which confidential documents were taken," according to TribLive.

Kane has accused Feudale, a fellow Democrat who has presided over several high-profile corruption cases and the Sandusky case, of a "reckless breach of sealed Supreme Court documents," as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

While Thursday's hearing on Kane's claims will be held in a private chamber, the dispute between the attorney general and her foes has been a very public affair.

In what local papers are referring to as "Porngate," the scandal has been linked to:

  • 6 firings, 2 resignations and 23 reprimands in the attorney general's office;
  • Resignations by the state environmental secretary, his chief attorney and a member of the state parole board;
  • Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery's resignation last month (after he was suspended).

Kane, a Democrat, was sworn in as Pennsylvania's attorney general in 2013. In August of this year, she was charged with a felony and seven misdemeanors, after prosecutors said she had abused her office and leaked sealed grand-jury information. Since then, she has resisted calls from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and others for her to resign.

Insisting that she has done nothing wrong, Kane said in August that the chain of events that led to the charges against her "began with a group of state prosecutors and judges passing pornographic, racially offensive, and religiously offensive emails amongst each other — email traffic sent and received on government computers, and on government time."

Her office's probe into the handling of the Sandusky case didn't unearth political wrongdoing, but Kane said she became a target as soon as she announced that her office's inquiry would unearth every email that had passed through her Republican predecessor's office. In their inquiry, investigators pulled together dozens of raunchy emails between officials, many of which had been forwarded on to others.

Hundreds of pages of those emails — and their attached images — were released in late August, under an order by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Many were sent either from or to high-ranking officials.

As Metro US reported:

"The emails range from Penthouse-fare pornography to memes that are swapped on forums like 4chan and random images with racist or sexist commentary.

"Several of the emails originated with Frank Fina, a former prosecutor at the Attorney General's office who is currently employed by the Philadelphia D.A.'s office."

Fina's name has also figured in the Kane-Feudale dispute, as the judge has blamed his computer for auto-completing Fina's email address — using his old attorney general's address, rather than his newer DA email — last fall, in an email exchange that also included two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, according to TribLive. The news site adds that Kane's office seems to have kept Fina's old email address active.

The recently released emails also widened the public's perspective on this aspect of the scandal, with Kane's office having released some of the explicit messages received by her agency's current and former employees in September of 2014.

As the AP notes, Kane has suggested that the scandal could still grow:

"On Oct. 1, as she left court in the leak case, she dropped another bombshell: The email scandal also involved U.S. attorneys, attorneys general and a [state] Supreme Court justice who had voted along with the rest of the court just days earlier to suspend Kane's law license. That justice is now being investigated for possible judicial misconduct."

In addition to suggesting that an old-boy culture has been thriving in the highest circles of power in Pennsylvania, the scandal has occasionally taken on a sensational tone — as at a hearing in September, when Kane seemingly duped the media by sending her twin sister off an elevator, drawing journalists' attention before the attorney general emerged with her bodyguards.

As she fights the criminal charges against her, Kane has also taken an unusual step for a top prosecutor: setting up a website called The Truth About Kathleen Kane to tell her side of the story.

Providing some perspective on the case and what it means for Pennsylvania, a recent editorial in the York Daily Record states:

"As scandals go, Porngate could be seen as fairly trivial, one that quickly fades from memory while business in Harrisburg continues as usual.

"But what it reveals about the deeply rooted culture of our state capital is not trivial. Addressing that scandal, though, is not as easy as shaming state officials for looking at porn at work. And the sad thing is that, given recent state government history, this whole situation is simultaneously unsurprising and disappointing."

Updated 7:45 p.m. ET: Judge Issues Statement On Kane

In court Thursday, Kathleen Kane testified that she has no knowledge of improper leaks of grand jury information in the Jerry Sandusky case, according to a release from Judge John Cleland. As a result, Cleland says, he has rejected a request from Sandusky's attorneys for information about the grand jury that investigated him.

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