Bent on retaliation, Kane put her career and freedom in jeopardy

20150809_inq_pkane09-d
Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman , flanked by prosecutors and detectives from Montgomery and Bucks Counties who were part of the investigation team, announces charges against Attorney General Kathleen Kane in Norristown. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Kathleen Kane sowed the seeds of her undoing during her seemingly flawless first year in office.

That was the year the Democratic attorney general, newly elected in a landslide, won national attention for stands in favor of gun control and marriage equality. MSNBC host Chris Matthews even suggested she was presidential material.

But it was also the year she secretly shut down an undercover sting operation she inherited from her Republican predecessors.

Though the investigation had caught Democratic elected officials in Philadelphia pocketing cash and jewelry, Kane, in 2013, declined to press charges, saying the case was badly flawed and possibly tainted by racial targeting. She kept her decision a secret under court seal.

Last year, when The Inquirer broke the news of the aborted sting, Kane plotted a response that only deepened the furor over her decision to end the case.

"This is war," she declared in an e-mail on the day the paper published its story.

But she proved to be an inept warrior, making misstatements and gaffes as she went after the man she blamed for providing information about the sting to the newspaper. Her target was a career prosecutor, Frank Fina.

On Thursday, Kane, the state's highest-ranking law enforcement official, was charged with illegally leaking confidential information, lying about it under oath, and deploying aides to spy on people involved in the investigation.

Kane was charged with perjury, obstruction, conspiracy, official oppression, and other offenses.

On Saturday, Kane was fingerprinted at the Montgomery County detective bureau in Norristown and arraigned via video conference by Magisterial Judge Cathleen Kelly Rebar, who set bail at $10,000 unsecured, which allowed Kane to depart.

In outlining the case against Kane, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman portrayed her as reckless in the extreme in her desire to get even with Fina, once the office's star prosecutor.

Kane's war, Ferman said, was "conducted without regard to rules, without regard to the law, and without regard to collateral damage the battle might entail."

To her critics, including many former aides, Kane is a woman who grew intoxicated by her big election victory and a year's worth of praise, and then crumpled at the first burst of bad publicity.

For her part, Kane, 49, has said her woes stem from her searing attacks on a male and Republican Harrisburg political establishment.

"There are a group of guys who really are angry, who really do not want me there," she said this year, "and they are doing everything they can to remove me."

In recent months, the embattled Kane seemed almost heedless of risks or damage to her image. She fired a veteran appeals chief who had testified against her to a grand jury probing the release of confidential investigation information, despite a protective court order banning retaliation against witnesses.

She stripped power from an even more senior aide - another witness against her - and named as chief of staff a man facing accusations of sexual harassment by two women who worked in the Attorney General's Office.

It has been a rocky journey since Kane first lashed out at critics of her decisions in the sting case. She said they were nothing more than the "good ol' boys club playing political games to discredit me."

When The Inquirer broke the story of the secretly aborted undercover operation, Kane grew upset and in a statement blamed the story on "several cowardly anonymous sources." She primarily blamed Fina, prosecutors say.

In the criminal affidavit, prosecutors wrote that despite Kane's anger, "investigators found no evidence" that Fina was the source for The Inquirer's story.

Days after article appeared, Kane requested a meeting with reporters and editors at the newspaper to elaborate on her reasons for shutting down the investigation.

At the appointed time, though, she showed up with the feared libel lawyer Richard A. Sprague. He threatened lawsuits, either against the paper or those Kane believed were sources of the story. She sat mute.

"She would like to speak to you," Sprague said. "Unfortunately, a mean ogre representing her is preventing it."

As her aide Adrian King Jr. later told Kane, hiring Sprague accomplished only one thing: undermining her brand as someone tough enough to shake things up.

In the criminal complaint against Kane, King, who is no longer on her staff, is quoted as calling her decision to hire Sprague "madness." Kane later admitted it was a mistake.

During her 2012 campaign, Kane had made a major theme of criticizing how state prosecutors had pursued Jerry Sandusky, the serial child predator and assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University. In a pitch that resonated among alumni, she suggested that the case had been dragged out to diminish any political damage to Tom Corbett, then the governor but previously attorney general.

As Corbett's top prosecutor, Fina had led the Sandusky investigation, along with a string of high-stakes public-corruption cases, including the sting.

Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Kane, once in office, hired a law professor and former federal prosecutor to review the Sandusky inquiry.

In his report, the professor ultimately dismissed Kane's contention that politics had slowed the probe. He did say, however, that there were "inexplicable delays" and that Fina could have made tactical moves that would have sped up the case.

Kane wouldn't leave it at that.

At a news conference, she said Fina had failed to bring charges on behalf of one victim. The next day, her press staff had to admit the victim had testified at the trial.

It all became too much for the state's association of district attorneys.

Last summer, the group officially condemned Kane for comments that "disparaged" other prosecutors.

"The focus on winning the news cycle must end," it said.

The lesson didn't take.

Kane later become embroiled in a tawdry controversy over pornography. In digging into old e-mails as part of her investigation of the handling of the Sandusky case, Kane's technical experts discovered that staffers in her office had for years been exchanging X-rated photos and videos on the office's e-mail system.

Saying that "transparency" was important, Kane later named a handful of those who shared the material. But her selection of those she named was curious.

Scores of staffers, past and current, had swapped images. Kane identified only eight - all former associates of Fina's. Amid the humiliating publicity, five of the eight quickly lost their jobs.

Fina was among the many in the office sharing in the e-mails. Sources say Kane was intent on tying him to the material, too, but ran into legal barriers barring her from doing so.

Fina had been involved in the grand jury investigation of Kane's information leak, and the judge supervising it had issued a protective order forbidding her from retaliating against witnesses. That took the porn weapon from her hand.

Later last year, Kane went on CNN to talk about the lewd material - and misspoke again. She left the impression the material included child porn.

"We are not saying that it reached the level of child pornography," a spokeswoman clarified the following day.

Her biggest public-relations blunder was her reaction to the revelation of the aborted sting.

As controversy flared over her decision to shut down what seemed to be a promising probe, Kane took a gamble, and lost.

In April 2014, she dared her biggest critic, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, to take on a case that she had lambasted as "half-assed" - poorly run and possibly marred by racial targeting.

Williams took up the challenge, reopened the investigation, and brought criminal charges against five current or former state legislators and a former Traffic Court judge. Four have pleaded guilty.

In another blow to Kane's image, The Inquirer later reported that the sting case wasn't the only corruption inquiry Kane reined in.

Also in 2013, Kane quashed subpoenas in an investigation of a former state gaming official with ties to Louis DeNaples, a politically connected multimillionaire from her home turf, the Scranton area.

Five months after the subpoena was killed, DeNaples gave Kane a $25,000 campaign contribution. She returned the money later that year.

In her boldest counterattack at Fina, Kane decided to plant a news story suggesting that he had botched a corruption case - the very criticism she was facing.

Five days after The Inquirer published its first article about the sting, prosecutors say, Kane dispatched a senior investigator to the Philadelphia area to dig into an old - and closed - case.

The 2009 investigation, supervised by Fina as the chief of the corruption unit, had examined whether Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire had misused state money. A Mondesire employee was convicted of misappropriating funds, and that is where the case ended.

To strike at Fina, Kane arranged for material about the years-old investigation to be given to a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. The result was a front-page story that raised questions about Mondesire, but also quoted an internal office document in which an investigator complained that "criminal activity was just ignored" under Fina.

Mondesire, who was not charged with a crime, has denied any wrongdoing and said he intends to sue Kane.

A Kane spokesman, Lanny J. Davis, scandal-tested as an aide to former President Bill Clinton, said later: "I certainly think she wants me to say to Mr. Mondesire, she never intended to disparage your reputation."

Fina, for his part, has rejected any suggestion he failed to vigorously pursue the Mondesire case. And he drew upon his legal experience to fight back against the leak to the Daily News.

When he was contacted by the Daily News reporter, Fina wrote to Montgomery County Court Judge William R. Carpenter, alerting him that someone had given confidential investigative material to the newspaper.

Carpenter, a Republican, appointed lawyer Thomas Carluccio to lead a grand jury investigation into the leak. The result: Many of Kane's top aides testified against her, contradicting what prosecutors describe as the lies she told the grand jury.

After trying and failing to shut down Carluccio's probe, and quash a subpoena requiring her to testify before the grand jury, Kane publicly acknowledged that she was behind the leak. She insisted, however, that her actions did not violate the law.

She delivered that statement on the morning of Nov. 17 before heading in to testify under oath.

The grand jury ultimately concluded that Kane had repeatedly lied. In its report, the grand jury said the state's top law enforcement official had broken the law.

With Thursday's filing of criminal charges, Ferman affirmed that conclusion.

-In the end, the Daily News story had focused primarily on Mondesire. At most, it delivered only a glancing blow at Fina. What it did was backfire and further undermine Kane's once-glittering career.


Key Allegations Against Kane

Among allegations in the affidavit of probable cause:

On March 16, 2014, The Inquirer published a story that Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane "perceived to be an attack on her personally and professionally. She became incensed at two former state prosecutors whom she believed had released the information used in the article," which detailed an undercover sting operation that Kane had shut down.

In an e-mail with her media strategist, Kane wrote: "I will not allow them to discredit me or our office. . . . This is war."

After Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams picked up the sting case, Kane said she wanted to make "Seth pay."

Kane asked a political operative "to gather negative information on Seth Williams." He declined.

Kane believed that releasing information about a former prosecutor's handling of a long-shuttered case "would publicly embarrass the people whom she believed had publicly embarrassed her."

Kane directed a top aide to deliver secret grand jury testimony from a closed case involving former Philadelphia NAACP leader J. Whyatt Mondesire to the political operative, who gave it to the Philadelphia Daily News.

Kane directed two top aides to "secretly or surreptitiously review" employees' e-mails.

While the grand jury investigation was underway, Kane directed aides to search office e-mails for terms related to the grand jury, including the names of the judge, prosecutor, and two Inquirer reporters.

Kane repeatedly lied to the grand jury, "to conceal and cover up the crimes she knew she had committed."

When staff expressed concern about the leak, Kane said: "Don't worry about it. It's not a big deal."

Kane gave a "direct order" to staff members not to cooperate with the grand jury and threatened them with termination: "If I get taken out of here in handcuffs, what do you think my last act will be?"


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy