It’s tough to be a Pennsylvanian these days. Especially if you are from Philadelphia. Our State is on the verge of shutting down because we can’t pass a budget. Our public school systems are still a problem and habitually underfunded. And we can’t even take solace in our diversion of choice – sports (at least those of us in Philadelphia). The Flyers are terrible, the Eagles are worse and the Sixers are trying to lose games and have been for 3 years.
But compared to what’s going on in the upper echelon of our government, these seem like minor annoyances. Because just now, Pennsylvania’s entire democratic government appears to be imploding.
The sheer volume and breadth of potentially career-ending allegations being asserted against the State’s political elite is astonishing and unprecedented. If you haven’t been able to keep up with daily allegations of widespread political misconduct and corruption (and who could blame you), here is a quick rundown on the current state of your government:
- Your elected Attorney General’s license to practice law has been revoked by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and she is facing trial on multiple perjury charges, allegedly for lying about her role in leaking confidential grand jury information;
- One of your elected Supreme Court Justices (Justice Seamus McCaffery) resigned after allegations that he sent pornographic, misogynistic and racially derogatory emails to other State employees, including prosecutors;
- Governor Tom Wolf has formally requested that a second Supreme Court Justice (Justice Michael Eakin) resign, also for sending and receiving sexually and racially offensive emails. Justice Eakin has also been accused of exchanging offensive and inappropriate emails concerning female members of his staff;
- A third Supreme Court Justice (the Court’s Chief Justice) has been accused of implementing a clandestine scheme to save his imperiled colleague’s job by appointing a ringer to the Court of Judicial Discipline – the Court responsible for doling out potential punishment to Justice Eakin; and
- A number of your State’s top prosecutors have been accused of pursuing a racially tainted corruption sting targeting minorities. There are calls for some of these same prosecutors to resign or be fired for exchanging pornographic and offensive emails with the above referenced Supreme Court Justices.
The bullet points above are only an outline of recent headline grabbing allegations involving the leaders of your State. The media has been using the term “Porngate” to describe the exponentially growing investigation into hundreds of arguably pornographic emails exchanged by government officials. As far as I know, none of the upper echelon political figures identified in these controversies has been convicted of a crime. Most have not admitted to any wrongdoing, although Justice Eakin has issued an apology. I can’t and won’t pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of any of the parties involved. For the most part, these are all just allegations. That said, every new, scandalous headline is a black eye for our home State.
At this point, these high-profile scandals have assumed a life of their own. But what is remarkable, and lost in the avalanche of new allegations, is how this entire mess appears to have started in the first place. Believe it or not, the ongoing investigations threatening to take down a significant chunk of Pennsylvania’s political elite seems to have grown from a small squabble between prosecutors. Really! It is like a Shakespearean tale. Two prosecutors who didn’t like each other inadvertently set in motion a series of events that could result in the meltdown of Pennsylvania’s government (or at least its Judiciary).
Hard to believe? Well, let me tell you a story . . . about what “allegedly” happened:
Way back in 2012, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party backed former prosecutor Kathleen Kane for Attorney General. It had been an awfully long time since a Democrat had been Attorney General in Pennsylvania. In fact, before Kane, no Democrat had EVER been elected Attorney General in Pennsylvania. But Kane liked her chances and so did her supporters.
One of Kane’s campaign strategies was to criticize then Governor Tom Corbett’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky case. Governor Corbett had been serving as Pennsylvania’s Attorney General when the Attorney General’s Office began investigating claims that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing minors. The primary attorney investigating Sandusky was Frank Fina, a well-known prosecutor with a long list of high-profile convictions.
During her campaign for office, Kane suggested that Corbett and Fina had delayed prosecuting Sandusky so that it would not impact Corbett’s successful bid to run for Governor in 2010. On the campaign trail, she promised she would review Fina’s investigation into the Sandusky matter.
Kane was eventually elected as Pennsylvania’s Attorney General. But, a number of newspapers reported that Fina was angry that Kane wanted to review his work on the Sandusky matter and that she criticized the way the prosecution was handled.
On March 17, 2014, the Philadelphia Inquirer broke a story that Kane, in one of her first significant acts as Attorney General, had quietly shut down an undercover sting operation that had succeeded in capturing various Philadelphia politicians accepting cash payments in return for favors. That sting operation had been run by Frank Fina.
The Inquirer story was critical of Kane shutting down the sting operation. Particularly in light of the video evidence of politicians taking money as bribes. Reportedly, Kane believed that Fina had leaked the story to the Inquirer. For her part, Kane told the Inquirer that she had shut the sting down because she believed that the individuals conducting the operation (i.e. Fina) had improperly targeted only black politicians.
Kane, angry about the Inquirer article, allegedly decided what is good for the goose is good for the gander and decided to leak negative information about Fina. Reportedly, Kane leaked confidential memos from a 2009 Grand Jury investigation run by Fina. Kane believed that Fina had botched the investigation and the memos proved it. Fina, in turn, reported the illegal leak of Grand Jury memos to a Montgomery County judge. That kick started a separate Grand Jury investigation into who exactly leaked the confidential memos.
Kane was then called to testify in front of a Grand Jury about her involvement in leaking the memos. She denied any wrongdoing, but the Grand Jury concluded there was sufficient evidence that she lied. Boom! Kane is now facing a criminal trial in Montgomery County for multiple counts of perjury.
Still with me? Good – because now things get a little crazy.
While Kane and Fina were allegedly busy trying to destroy each other, Kane made good on her campaign promise to review the Sandusky investigation. Fina, who ran that investigation, was cooperating with the probe, but he had left the AG’s office and joined the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. In order to better recollect his actions in the Sandusky probe, Fina reportedly requested his emails from that investigation. That turned out to be an inadvertent, yet fatal mistake
When Kane started searching through Fina’s old emails from the Sandusky matter, she reportedly found additional emails he had sent or received that contained offensive and/or pornographic emails. Reportedly, this gave Kane leverage she could use to strike back at Fina and potentially destroy his career.
But Kane didn’t just find offensive emails from Fina. She also found racially insensitive and offensive emails sent to and from Supreme Court Justices Seamus McCaffery and Michael Eakin, amongst others. A number of people were included on these email chains, including prosecutors, making the emails not only offensive but evidence of troubling conflicts of interests (Supreme Court Justices really shouldn’t be exchanging personal emails with prosecutors when a significant part of a Justices job is to review the conduct of those same prosecutors). And this is the pivotal moment in this story. Up until this point, the story playing out was simply a scorched earth personal dispute between two prosecutors. But now, with these offensive emails being sent to and from Supreme Court Justices and high powered prosecutors, the controversy exploded.
Justice McCaffery resigned shortly after the emails uncovered by Kane came to light. Justice Eakin did not resign. Special Counsel was hired to investigate Justice Eakin’s involvement and determined that the emails he sent weren’t really all that bad. It was later reported that the Special Counsel had previously assisted with Justice Eakin’s re-election for the Supreme Court in 2011 . . . but that’s a different story.
Anyway, things with Justice Eakin were status quo for a time, but of course, in a story like this, it is inevitable that the next shoe would dropped. And it did. In a surprising move, the Supreme Court suspended Kane’s law licenses this past summer, ostensibly because of the criminal charges pending against her for perjury. By suspending Kane’s law license, the Supreme Court left the State’s lawyer-in-chief unable to practice law.
Now, it just so happens that not long after the Supreme Court moved to suspend Kane’s law license, additional emails from Justice Eakin were “discovered.” These emails, reportedly included email exchanges between Justice Eakin and other men that contain highly suggestive and offensive discussions about female judicial staff members.
After the content of these “new” emails became public, Governor Wolf called for Justice Eakin to resign. But, as a sitting Supreme Court Justice, it is for the Court of Judicial Discipline to decide whether Justice Eakin is fit to remain on the bench.
Now, you would think that if a Supreme Court Justice was subject to trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline the Court of Judicial Discipline would be independent of the Supreme Court. But, of course you would be wrong. It turns out that the Supreme Court has the authority to appoint a judge to the Court of Judicial Discipline. A few days ago the Inquirer broke a story that Justice Eakin and the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Thomas Saylor were attempting to nominate Karen Snider, former secretary with the Department of Welfare, to the Court of Judicial Discipline because she would be sympathetic to Justice Eakin. Regardless of the motives for appointing Snider, it appears Eakin was permitted to vote for Snider’s appointment, which seems like a potential conflict of interest.
I could go on for another dozen pages with this stuff, but my 10 minutes are up. And you are now caught up on the current state of Pennsylvania politics!
PJames Goslee is a trial attorney in Philadelphia and can be reached at http://jamiegoslee.com/about/hoto Credit: Darastar, Everystockphoto.com