Power: The Importance of Being Ernie

A year in prison for campaign finance abuses transformed former State Attorney General Ernie Preate from a grandstanding death-penalty advocate to a humble prisoner-rights crusader. Or so he needs us to believe

Ernie Preate isn’t what he used to be.

Old Ernie was a hardboiled pol. All about ambition. All about Ernie. All about his campaign du jour. This was how old Ernie operated: pol first, Pennsylvania Attorney General second. And pity the poor sucker who got in his way.

Like Gregory Abeln, who was chief of Ernie’s Environmental Crimes Section in 1990. Abeln suddenly got demoted, banished to Scranton, when Ernie found out he was conducting a wiretap between an Altoona city councilwoman and a Pittsburgh trash hauler, after she alleged the hauler was trying to coerce her vote on a recycling contract. Abeln didn’t get it. Just two weeks before, he had received a handwritten note from Ernie, with a raise. It wasn’t like he had overstepped his bounds, either; he was the prosecutor in charge of wiretap protocol. Why, then, was he demoted and sent to the Scranton office? He couldn’t get an answer, and, worse, he had recently hospitalized his wife with multiple sclerosis and was a single parent of three teenage children living in Carlisle, a 140-mile drive from Scranton, which Ernie was well aware of. Abeln finally had to quit.

Several years passed. Then Abeln’s phone rang. A reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot-News told him that Ernie’s campaign had received a $5,000 contribution from the trash hauler nine days before the wiretap was halted. Bingo! Federal prosecutors would later learn that the trash hauler, using a backdoor practice called earmarking, had given Ernie a total of $34,000 for his first A.G. run and after he assumed office in 1989, funneling cash through the state Republican Party.

But that was all before. Before Ernie ran for governor. Before he got caught. Before he lost his law license. Before he disgraced his office, his family and himself. Before he went to jail.

Somewhere along the line, maybe during his 11 months in a federal prison, and more likely after a near-fatal motorcycle crash six months out of jail, old Ernie found some enlightenment, and came back a new man, singing a different tune. One of his first public appearances after getting out of jail was at a fund-raiser for Second Chance Ministries, in September 1997. A tearful Ernie, still recovering from his bike accident, told 750 rapt ministers and ex-cons about his metamorphosis from a pol who used inmates as “whipping boys to get votes.” He described the prison system as “vast warehouses of hopelessness,” and said the system should be reexamined so that it “punishes justly, not cruelly.” This from a former law-and-order A.G. who helped build that system.

A woman approached Ernie at the banquet and introduced herself as Dianna Hollis, the wife of lifer Douglas Hollis, whose 1994 request for commutation was denied because Ernie had voted against it. She gave him an envelope containing a request for help. Ernie called her the next day. He eventually promised to lobby on her husband’s behalf, and further promised that when, God willing, he got his law license back, he would represent Hollis in his next commutation request. Several years later, in April 2001, Ernie was reinstated to the bar by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and he is set to file Hollis’s commutation application this spring. “There has been no one like Ernie before!” gushes Mrs. Hollis, president of the prison reform group PA Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. “He is our adviser and spokesman; he visits inmates, educates them and gives them hope.”