Kathleen Kane Crosses a Final Line

The firing of a top aide proves she's either malicious or dumb. Either way, it's time to end this.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane walks from the State Supreme Court room, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, at City Hall in Philadelphia.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane walks from the State Supreme Court room, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, at City Hall in Philadelphia.

That’s it. Kathleen Kane is over, or should be at any rate.

Not officially, of course. We don’t know yet if Montgomery County D.A. Risa Vetri Ferman will accept a grand jury’s recommendations and bring charges against her for leaking grand jury information to the Philadelphia Daily News. There’s always a chance Ferman decides the scandal is overblown, do us all a favor, and walk away without putting us through the spectacle of the state’s chief law enforcement officer being put on trial.

Politically, though, she’s done. And she should be. Her missteps are too numerous, too embarrassing, too hackish to amount to much more than political malpractice. 

Even given many of her missteps, I was inclined to defend her until last week. I have written — and I still believe — that the grand jury scandal is a load of hooey, and we know that it’s a load of hooey because so much of what we know about the scandal has come to us from grand jury leaks. Kathleen Kane is being held to a standard that almost nobody else in Pennsylvania public life has been held to, ever, and that is simply not fair. Period.

Now, though, I’m starting to come around to the point of view that the grand jury scandal is kind of like Al Capone’s tax problem: It’s not the real problem, but maybe it’ll have to do.

Why the change of heart? Two words: James Barker.

That’s the name of Pennsylvania’s former chief deputy attorney general in charge of criminal appeals and logistics for statewide investigating grand juries. “Former” because Kane fired him. A firing that took place, incidentally, after it was widely reported that Barker’s testimony in the grand jury leak scandal contradicted Kane’s — and thus is a big reason she stands on the precipice of facing charges.

Kane denies targeting Barker. Her representatives initially said she was reorganizing the office for efficiency’s sake and Barker’s departure was a byproduct of a process that was entirely about serving the people of Pennsylvania better. Her office reportedly later said that he’d been let go due to alleged, unspecified leaks.

There are two ways of looking at the explanation, and neither of them are good.

The first interpretation, of course, is that she’s not quite telling the truth about Barker’s firing. (Does anybody believe her? Show of hands? Anybody? Anybody?) If that were the case, it would seem to be a pretty clear violation the spirit, if not the precise wording, of a judge’s protective order not to retaliate against witnesses in the case. What’s even worse in this scenario? That she thought she could do it in broad daylight and get away with it. Astonishing.

The other interpretation is almost too dismal to consider: That’s she’s telling the truth. That she fired the man publicly identified as a key witness against her because she really wanted so badly to improve the efficiency of her office and nobody was around who could (or perhaps even would) convince her that this was precisely the wrong moment for that kind of action. If Kane is telling the truth, in other words, she’s unbelievably dim and tone deaf and has a very poor team surrounding her that can’t begin to save her from herself.

It’s the old conundrum that faced Ronald Reagan defenders during the Iran-Contra scandal. Did the president knowingly violate the law? Or was he just too befuddled to understand what he was getting into? Malicious or dumb, those are the choices then and now, and neither paints a picture in which Kathleen Kane should remain attorney general.

The story right now is that most of the state’s Democrats are hesitating to jump on the burgeoning “Dump Kane,” bandwagon. Truth is, though, we’ve now arrived at a point where there’s probably very little downside to hopping on. We don’t need a conviction or even actual charges to understand what the evidence is telling us: Kathleen Kane is not a very good attorney general. Pennsylvania is ill-served with her in office.

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