Is This The End of Porngate?

Taxpayers can finally see an independent report that cost them $385,000. But they won't glimpse the names of state employees who were caught emailing offensive messages.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer discusses the findings of an independent report on millions of emails shared on office servers.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Bruce Beemer discusses the findings of an independent report on millions of emails shared on office servers.

So this is it, then?

After all of the name-calling, the ruined careers, the lawsuits, and the investigations of previous investigations, Porngate ended on something of an anticlimactic note today, like a long-running circus abruptly leaving town without a promised final performance.

Oh, the saga did reach some kind of a conclusion — outgoing state Attorney General Bruce Beemer released the long-gestating report on “Misuse Of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Government E-mail Communication Systems” compiled by former Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler and his law firm, BuckleySandler. But the results might not have been what you were expecting.

Remember, it’s been nearly a year since then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane hired Gansler to dig even deeper into what she described as the “good ol’ boys network” of prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and other law enforcement officials who frequently shared raunchy, racist and misogynistic emails. Kane argued that the stakes were bigger than the ethical black hole that devoured her career; the integrity of the criminal justice system was at risk.

Gansler didn’t take on the task of combing through more than 6.4 million emails for free. The A.G.’s Office owes his law firm a little more than $385,000, according to Beemer, who seemed underwhelmed by the findings. Beemer argued Gansler’s report showed no evidence that prosecutors, investigators and judges were discussing cases or otherwise behaving badly in a way that should cause people to lose faith in the system. “This review leaves no doubt — there was nothing found in these emails to suggest there were inappropriate ex parte communications between members of the judiciary and [Attorney General’s Office] employees about cases or matters affecting the administration of justice,” he said. 

And yet Gansler also wrote in the report: “My investigation confirmed that a significant problem exists regarding the volume and nature of sexually explicit and offensive e-mail communication between certain members of the Pennsylvania judicial branch, including judges and district attorneys, as well as employees of state executive branch agencies, and even a member of the General Assembly. These communications demonstrate a fundamental and dangerous degree of impropriety that threatens public confidence in a fair and unbiased law enforcement and judicial system, and impartial governance more generally.”

These are but two quotes from two people, but they represent the argument that has been at the heart of Porngate all along. Are the emails just shameful screw-ups involving a relatively small percentage of state employees, or are they emblematic of a much larger systemic problem? Even now, at what could be the end of this insane storyline, you’re still finding completely different interpretations.

The independent team reviewed emails from the Attorney General’s Office’s servers, and emails from government employees across the state who sent or received messages from the A.G.’s Office. Gansler wrote in his report that more than 11,930 inappropriate emails were flagged; they were sent by more than 370 state prosecutors or personnel members, and more than 25 members of the state judiciary.

About 25 percent of the emails contained “obscene material or nudity,” while 75 percent had racist or sexist content. Gansler and his law firm flagged 38 people as “high-volume” senders of offensive material, meaning they’d passed along at least 50 such emails. And 13 were singled because they were senior government officials or judges. (Two judges you already know about: Former state Supreme Court Justices Seamus McCaffery and Michael Eakin, who both resigned after their emails previously became public. Three others were not named, but the Judicial Conduct Board is now supposedly investigating.)

After all this time, it was Beemer who supplied the surprising twist, announcing that he’d decided to redact the names of anyone who ended up in Gansler’s report. Many of the emails Gansler’s team had flagged were actually “borderline,” Beemer said, and some — like a discussion between women diagnosed with breast cancer — weren’t offensive at all. Allowing their names to be published in a report like this would have tarnished their reputations, and left both the A.G.’s Office and  BuckleySandler open to possible lawsuits, he said.

Other state investigators had already been disciplined by Kane, and shouldn’t be subject to another round of public embarrassment, Beemer said — not for emails that “in most cases, were sent six, seven or eight years ago.” Some of the other people mixed up in the emails worked for other agencies and organizations; Beemer said the A.G.’s Office will refer the necessary information to them.

He also criticized the law firm’s reliance on a computer program to unearth potentially offensive emails. Any messages that contained certain words — like gay, Italian, Irish, Polish, African Americans, Muslims — were flagged, regardless of context or content, or who they were sent to. “There may be a real, real question of how these emails were analyzed and looked at,” Beemer said.

In the report, Gansler walks through the process his team relied on to sort through the emails, including its use of software that could figure out how likely it was that email attachments contained pornographic material. And of course they found gems, like an email titled, “Fw: The Bald Eagle XX” that was sent on March 30th, 2009, from a personal email account of an A.G.’s Office employee to 16 people. A written introduction about the beauty of the “Spread Eagle” gave way to photos of “nude women with their legs spread apart. Several of the photographs depict oral sex, masturbation, or sexual intercourse. Accompanying some of the photographs are captions like ‘The Spread Eagle is a beautiful, elegant creature…but a very, very messy eater,'” according to the report.

There are more offensive messages, of course. Some contain jokes about Michelle Obama, Rock Hudson, Hindu women, and “Asian midgets dressed as clowns.” (Yeah. Seriously.) But you already knew that.

Beemer talked about how the Porngate-related lawsuits and investigations have sapped the office of time and money, and pulled it away from fighting against the heroin epidemic, or protecting children from predators, or consumers from scammers. And that all seems true enough — but it also conveniently skips assigning any blame to the people who used state computers and state time to circulate the material in the first place.

The office, he said, has already started implementing reforms to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. And incoming A.G. Josh Shapiro seems likely to push for some additional oversight as well. But as Gansler notes in his report, all of the policy changes in the world won’t matter “unless the culture that has permitted expressions of prejudiced and bigoted attitudes across the Commonwealth, and sometimes among those at its highest levels, permanently changes.”

You still get the sense that no one really wants to have that conversation.

Follow @dgambacorta on Twitter.