Pennsylvania attorney general's troubles could haunt her if she seeks second term next year



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania's highest ranking law enforcement official is waiting to hear how the state Supreme Court will rule on whether a county judge had the power to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her and what to do about a grand jury report that recommends she be charged with a crime.

If Attorney General Kathleen Kane survives the grand jury leak investigation, voters will get to issue their own verdict about her political future — she plans to run for second term next year.

Kane, who had worked as a Lackawanna County prosecutor, swept into office with a wide victory in 2012. A political neophyte, she was aided by a substantial family fortune and tail winds from President Barack Obama's successful re-election campaign.

She also promised to review how state prosecutors had handled the Jerry Sandusky child molestation case, suggesting political considerations by one of her predecessors as attorney general, Tom Corbett, had improperly influenced decision making.

Sworn into office in January 2013, Kane tangled with Corbett — by then governor — by refusing to defend the state's same-sex marriage ban and nixing a contract to outsource management of the state lottery to a British firm. She also went public with details about a pornographic email scandal, leading to the eventual resignation of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery and firings of Corbett administration officials.

The review of the Sandusky case essentially cleared Corbett, the Philadelphia district attorney embarrassed her by bringing charges in a political bribery case that Kane had abandoned, and then she became the target of the grand jury investigation.

It recommended she be charged with perjury and other offenses related to the alleged leak of grand jury material to the Philadelphia Daily News last year. Kane has denied she broke any law and wants the high court to invalidate the special prosecutor's appointment.

Republicans, who until Kane's election had held the attorney general's job since it became an elected position several decades ago, are licking their chops.

"Anybody that's had the negative press that she has had is going to be vulnerable," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the state GOP. "I can't give you any names, but there are people who have shown interest, and usually there is limited interest against an incumbent."

Gleason said he expects that Republicans who want her job will start to come forward this summer.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Ron Castille, a Republican and former Philadelphia district attorney, said if Kane were to resign he might be interested in filling in. He is also thinking about running against her, he said.

"I haven't committed one way or the other, but it's along the lines of something I'm interested in," said Castille, who retired at the end of last year because he hit the mandatory age of 70.

Castille played a role in the special prosecutor's appointment -- the county judge who authorized it ran the decision past him in a letter that has become public. Castille has said that as chief justice he had the authority to grant permission, and his former colleagues on the high court have to determine if it was done properly.

"It looks to me like she's in over her head in the kind of things you have to do as an attorney general," he told the AP.

In response to a question about the office's performance during her tenure, Kane noted she has invested in equipment and people to bolster the child predator unit, launched a mobile street crimes unit to fight gangs and drugs, expanded education and outreach and grown the consumer protection bureau.

Kane, who declined an interview, issued a statement that her office works "tirelessly as public servants on behalf of all citizens of this commonwealth and we are making a difference in people's lives."

West Chester attorney Sam Stretton, who specializes in judicial and legal ethics and misconduct cases, said lawyers in the attorney general's office have told him she has not been an effective leader.

"The morale is very low and there's a lot of fear among employees there," said Stretton, a Democrat. "From my observation, there are excellent, professional lawyers who are working in that office, and despite the very difficult and demoralizing environment, they are doing their job despite the personal toll on them."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said "the die has not been cast" on Kane's electoral chances in 2016, noting that a recent poll showed her with strong support within her party.

"If she doesn't get charged, she has no problem winning the Democratic nomination and in a presidential year would be the favorite to get re-elected," Rendell said.

Kane has spent time traveling the state and getting herself known, said T.J. Rooney, former chair of the state Democratic Party. That could pay dividends if the high court decision goes her way and she runs for a second term.

"There are a lot of big chasms along the way and I think a lot of the conventional wisdom is betting against her," Rooney said. "But it's oftentimes, that when politicians find themselves with their back against the wall, they can weather this incredible storm."


AP writer Marc Levy contributed to this story.


Mark Scolforo covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. Reach him at mscolforo@ap.org, or follow in Twitter: @houseofbuddy.

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