The Beginning of the End of the Kathleen Kane Saga: Her Trial Starts Today

The attorney general's trial on perjury and conspiracy charges begins this week. But the fallout from her downfall won't end anytime soon.

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 11th, 2015, at City Hall in Philadelphia.

What a short, strange trip it’s been for Kathleen Kane, Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be-former attorney general.

Around this time four years ago, she was crisscrossing the commonwealth and winning over curious voters with her charm and moxie, a former prosecutor from Scranton who vowed to bring an outsider’s perspective to the insiders-only world of state politics. Yeah, everyone trots out that line at some point during an election campaign, but for Kane it was more than mere spin; she really wasn’t part of the Democratic party’s inner circle.

She made history that fall, becoming the first woman and the first Democrat to be elected state attorney general. The 3 million votes she won seemed to confirm that Kane was onto something with her whole let’s-shake-up-this-old-boys-network mantra. It wasn’t long before political observers started gossiping about her possibly running for governor someday, maybe even president. A political star had been born!

Now, the most pressing question about Kathleen Kane’s future is whether she’s going to end up spending time behind bars.

Jury selection is scheduled to start today in Norristown for Kane’s trial on perjury and conspiracy charges, the beginning of the end of the most shocking and bizarre political scandal in recent state history. (This being perpetually shady Pennsylvania — which was given an “F” last year for its accountability and transparency efforts by the Center for Public Integrity — that’s really saying something.)

Everything about this saga has been complicated, and the fallout will last well beyond the conclusion of Kane’s trial. Just trying to answer the basic question of “How did we get here?” could make you go cross-eyed. As a candidate for attorney general, Kane vowed to re-examine the state’s investigation into Jerry Sandusky, the convicted child molester and former Penn State University defensive coach.

She argued that political concerns — like Tom Corbett’s run for governor in 2010 — had impacted the pace of the investigation.  That suggestion, not surprisingly, felt like a slap in the face to state prosecutors who worked to put Sandusky away. Prosecutors like Frank Fina, whose name would soon become synonymous with Kane and the surreal rabbit hole they dragged everyone else into.

Fina quit the A.G.’s Office soon after Kane’s tenure began in 2013, and landed a job in Philadelphia, working for District Attorney Seth Williams. You know how the song goes from there: Kane believed Fina was behind a story that appeared in the Inquirer in March 2014 about a corruption case that she refused to prosecute over concerns about racial bias, and then Fina believed Kane was behind a story that popped up in the Daily News a few months later about a stalled state grand jury investigation that Fina worked on involving late local NAACP leader J. Whyatt Mondesire.

Indeed, then-Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman accused Kane last August of leaking grand jury information to the Daily News, and lying about it. Kane has acknowledged sharing some information about the case, but not in any way that was, you know, illegal. Besides, she had an amazing defense: She was actually the victim of a “corruptly manufactured” investigation. It was retribution for Kane telling the public about the dark, dirty secret that was discovered by the investigator who had re-examined the Sandusky case — scores of state employees, from prosecutors to Supreme Court judges, had shared racist, pornographic, misogynistic and homophobic emails for years, often on state computers and state time.

It’s not an overstatement to say nothing’s been the same ever since. Kane’s law license was suspended, and she had to contend with legislators’ attempts to remove her from office. She eventually had to abandon the idea of running for a second term.  Fina quit the D.A.’s Office, which nearly drowned in controversy when Seth Williams refused to fire Fina — and two other former state prosecutors — after the state Supreme Court released lurid and offensive emails that Fina sent and received while working for the A.G.’s Office. Longtime state Supreme Court Justices Michael Eakin and Seamus McCaffery resigned after some of their emails became public. And that, frankly, is just a small glimpse at Porngate’s many twists and turns.

I sat down with Kane for an hour on a bitterly cold afternoon in January to discuss all things Porngate; some of her comments ended up in this lengthy overview of the scandal. Others, like this one about why she didn’t heed the calls of Gov. Tom Wolf and others to resign, didn’t:

“I knew that if I resigned, this whole debacle, this whole network, none of this would have come out. And I think it’s a good thing I didn’t resign, because maybe the path I’m on is to show the problem, and maybe someone can fix it.”

On the one hand, she’s probably right: The odds that any of the emails would have otherwise seen the light out day are incredibly slim. Some people — Eakin certainly among them — suggested that this was all much ado about nothing, just a bunch of off-color jokes and naughty pictures shared among friends. But the scandal was about so much more than who sent what to whom; the content of the exchanges made you wonder about the perspectives and biases of people who play a vital role in our justice system. And that’s a massive problem. Or, as Kane told me:

“When you make a little graph about it, you’ve got the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney. How the hell are you supposed to go in [to court] and expect you’re getting any justice? And to me, it felt like there’s now total chaos in the system, and I’ve never seen that before. If I talk to other lawyers, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ve known for years the state Supreme Court has been corrupt. Oh, the Disciplinary Board? That’s been a joke for years.’ But I never saw it. So to me, it was a shocking moment.”

She could have been a hero in all of this, could have easily won a second term as attorney general and then gone on to another office. But part of what’s made Kane such a captivating, maddening figure is that her flaws are every bit as deep as those of the men she sought to expose.

Montgomery County investigators didn’t have to dig too deeply to unearth evidence that Kane was consumed with striking back at her political enemies — Fina and Seth Williams included — consequences be damned. (Related: Williams recently told me that he believes Kane is in some way to blame for a federal investigation into his finances.) She doled out controversial emails in such an uneven fashion that it was difficult not to question whether the releases were intended to only embarrass certain participants. Her calls for Porngate players to be exposed and face justice grew noticeably quieter when it was revealed that her twin sister, Ellen Granahan, had also sent or received offensive material. But Kane has viewed her own role in all of this with almost religious purity:

“I wake up every day knowing that I’m right. I’m right. If I thought I was wrong, if I thought I did something wrong, I would never put anyone through this. Never. But I know I’m right. And I know there’s a greater good to this. I don’t want to sound like I think I’m some sort of martyr. If anybody asked me to choose this, would I choose it? Probably not. I’d probably say, ‘No, thank you.’ But I’m in it now. I guess I just see a reason for it. And I do have faith. I have a lot of faith that good conquers evil.”

In a few months, Pennsylvanians will schlep to the polls and elect Kathleen Kane’s successor. By then, her legal fate will likely have been decided. (Her attorneys made an eleventh-hour attempt at getting the charges against her tossed. It didn’t succeed.) I asked the two men running to replace her — Josh Shapiro, the Democratic Montgomery County commissioner, and John Rafferty, a Republican state senator — how they would try to move the A.G.’s office forward, past the wreckage of Kane and Porngate.

Shapiro talked about being a hands-on leader, and stressing the importance of ethics. “On Day One, I’d put in place an ethics code that every employee of the Attorney General’s Office would have to sign. We’d have a chief diversity officer, and improve the HR practices to get a staff that was far more reflective of Pennsylvania,” he said. “I would also establish a Casey Commission to essentially be a watchdog and a monitoring agency for what’s going on inside the Attorney General’s Office, and make sure we’re all conducting ourselves with the highest level of integrity.”

Rafferty noted that he served as a deputy attorney general in the late 1980s. He was also among the state senators who voted to remove Kane from office earlier this year. “The first priority of mine would be to bring integrity to that office, and re-establish the morale that once existed in that office,” he said. “You have to have someone who’s truly prepared, who understands the office of Attorney General and its function. You’re managing 800 employees. You want to make sure the person going in there has a good team of advisors around them, and that they’re looking out for the best interest of Pennsylvanians.”

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