Why Doesn’t Frank Fina Quit?
So why doesn’t Frank Fina simply resign?
For weeks now, and really longer, his boss — District Attorney Seth Williams — has been under pressure to fire Fina, as well as two other staff attorneys caught up in the “Porngate” controversy: Marc Costanzo and Pat Blessington. Williams, in turn, has done everything he can short of firing the trio: He’s put them through sensitivity training. He’s reassigned them to lower-profile jobs that lack prosecutorial powers. None of it has satisfied Williams’ critics, and the scandal doesn’t appear to be going away.
“He should just fire them,” City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez told the Inquirer this week.
There are some reasons — some compelling, some less so — why Williams might not want to pull that trigger. The reason that gets the most traction is that the Porngate emails weren’t swapped on his watch: As he pointed out to Philly Mag’s Holly Otterbein in September, the attorneys now working for him were working for then-Attorney General Tom Corbett when the activity took place. Do you punish your workers for misdeeds that took place in another workplace?
That would explain why Williams hasn’t fired Fina. It doesn’t explain why he’s still working in the D.A.’s office.
Let me explain why I’m singling out Fina here. First, it’s been established that — unlike Costanzo and Blessington — Fina didn’t just receive the pornographic emails, he also sent them. That makes him more culpable, it seems.
But it’s also the case that “Porngate” probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the well-documented, highly toxic rivalry that exists between Fina and Attorney General Kathleen Kane. The spiral of their antagonism has resulted in his Porngate public humiliation and her forthcoming trial on charges that she illegally leaked grand jury information for political gain. The collateral damage from their battle has been widespread and is ongoing. So Fina deserves some extra scrutiny.
And here’s what I don’t understand: Why he doesn’t just quit.
There’s a long and honorable history in public service that goes something like this: You’re a public official. You do a bad thing. You are caught having done the bad thing. Controversy ensues. You resign. And maybe, in a few years, after the public has settled down somewhat, you go back to work in public service; it just depends on how bad the bad thing is.
This history doesn’t just apply to the top officer in an organization: It applies to all sorts of employees, if their mistake reflects badly on the boss. They don’t even have to think they did anything wrong: All they have to know is that the boss is taking a hit and will keep taking hits as long as they stick around. So they quit for the good of their boss. Or of the institution. Or, simply to make a scandal go away already.
Which brings us to Fina. He’s not doing interviews, so I haven’t been able to ask him about all of this directly. But you’ve got to wonder: Why is he letting Williams take this beating?
Here’s something you probably don’t know: This week, Seth Williams unveiled a new program aimed at keeping young offenders out of prison and aimed at college instead. The program is for first-time non-violent offenders, intended to reduce over-incarceration and instead nudge troubled youngsters onto a better path. It might be great! It might be just the kind of program the city needs!
There was a story in the Inquirer. There was a story in the Tribune. But honestly, all the oxygen around the D.A.’s office these days is sucked up by Porngate — the announcement came and went with little commentary, even though over-incarceration is kind of a big, important issue locally. And that’s too bad.
Understand, too, the problem isn’t just that Fina’s continued employment is a political problem for Williams: It’s also a practical pain for the institution of the District Attorney’s office and its attempts to mete out justice in this city. Just today, the Daily News reports that lawyers are challenging a conviction in the deadly 2013 Market Street collapse, alleging racial disparities in the prosecution. Their evidence? Some of racist emails that Fina sent as part of the Porngate haul.
This probably won’t be the last such challenge.
Here’s what the National District Attorneys Association says, generally, about controversial situations: “Prosecutors should be mindful of their responsibility to seek justice. Should a prosecutor find himself or herself in a situation in which the public trust in the office has diminished to the extent that he or she can no longer fulfill that primary responsibility, resignation should be considered.”
Seth Williams bears some responsibility for his troubles these days, for choosing to keep Fina on staff in the face of so much criticism. But the onus is also on Fina, to prove that he’s worthy of public service, and to have the judgment to realize when his continued employment undermines both the man and the institution he works for — indeed, when it undermines the cause of seeking justice. So far, it looks like he’s failing to meet the challenge.
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