NORRISTOWN — Pennsylvania’s attorney general was charged Thursday with leaking secret grand jury information to strike back at her critics, then lying about it under oath, in a case that could spell the downfall of the state’s highest-ranking female politician.
Kathleen Kane leaked the material to a political operative to pass it on to the media “in hopes of embarrassing and harming former state prosecutors she believed, without evidence, made her look bad,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.
Kane, the first woman elected attorney general in Pennsylvania, was charged with perjury, obstruction, conspiracy and other offenses. The 49-year-old Democrat is expected to surrender within days.
“No one is above the law, not even the chief law enforcement officer of the state of Pennsylvania,” Ferman said. She called it “a sad day for the citizens of Pennsylvania and a sad day for all of us in law enforcement.”
Kane has portrayed herself as a victim of payback for taking on a corrupt, old-boy law enforcement network and exposing state employees for exchanging pornographic emails. She vowed to stay in office and fight the charges.
“A resignation would be an admission of guilt,” she said, “and I’m not guilty.”
A tumultuous tenure
The charges represent a new low in Kane’s tumultuous three years in office, a period that has seen an exodus of top aides, fumbled corruption cases and feuds with former prosecutors who served under her Republican predecessors.
While visiting State Street Elementary School in Larksville to push his proposal in the ongoing budget battle with the legislature, Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday faced the inevitable query about the charges filed against Kane.
“I don’t see how she can defend herself against such serious charges and fulfill her role as the state’s top law enforcement officer,” Wolf said, calling for Kane to step down.
Wolf’s plea echoed newspaper editorial pages across the state in recent months.
Kane had come under fire from some former prosecutors for declining to pursue charges against several lawmakers accused of taking illegal gifts.
The charges against her allege she struck back by leaking information to the Philadelphia Daily News last year that made it look as if prosecutors botched a 2009 probe into whether a Philadelphia NAACP official misused state job-training grants. The official was never charged.
The NAACP probe was headed by Frank Fina, who was a top prosecutor before Kane got elected. In court papers, Kane was accused of spilling the information to get even with Fina.
“I will not allow them to discredit me,” she wrote in a 2014 email to her media strategist. “This is war.”
Kane is the second state attorney general in the U.S. to face criminal charges this week. She is also the second Pennsylvania attorney general charged in the last 20 years.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was charged on Monday with securities fraud. Ernest Preate resigned as Pennsylvania attorney general in 1995 and served a year in prison after pleading guilty to fraud related to a campaign contribution.
Kane’s driver and confidant, Patrick Reese, was charged Thursday with indirect criminal contempt for allegedly snooping in the office computers to keep Kane informed about the grand jury investigating the leak. A lawyer for Reese, a former police chief near Scranton, had no comment.
Ferman said authorities are still investigating allegations Kane fired a prosecutor whose testimony was used to build the leak case against her.
Kane has acknowledged giving information to the Daily News but denied it was covered by secrecy laws. She also contended the prosecutor was fired over his job performance, not in revenge.
In September, she exposed eight former employees of her office as having received or sent pornography on their state computers. Those named included several former top supervisors. Kane fired four officials, and a state Supreme Court justice also resigned in the scandal.
Disrupting status quo
Relying heavily on her trucking magnate husband’s wealth, the Scranton native campaigned as a disrupter of the status quo.
Kane initially earned praise after taking office and challenging the state ban on gay marriage and the three years it took to prosecute former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on child molestation charges.
But some Republican lawmakers accused her of playing politics, and her star began to fall in 2014, especially after the grand jury leaks from her office.
Kane still received warm welcomes on her two visits to Luzerne County in the last 18 months, where Hazleton’s Republican Mayor Joe Yannuzzi and his police Chief, Frank DeAndrea, heaped praise and gratitude on her for sending agents to assist with drug busts and raids.
Kane visited Hazleton in February 2014, when her Mobile Street Crimes Unit made more than 40 arrests and seized over 9,000 packets of heroin in a three-day sweep. She trumpeted the fact that the unit had made more than 100 arrests and seized more than 35,000 packets of heroin in southern Luzerne County over the previous five months.
On Tuesday, Kane accompanied agents to Hazleton when they dismantled what she termed one of most substantial manufacturing and distribution facilities for ecstasy in the state.
The facility was discovered during an investigation that began last week when agents with her office’s Child Predator Section discovered an ecstasy lab in Hazle Township while serving a warrant related to child pornography.
DeAndrea said on Tuesday he was grateful Kane was “willing to come into our community and into our area as often as she does.” He could not be reached for comment on Thursday.