A closer look at Frank Fina

Frank Fina, part of the prosecution team in the Jerry Sandusky trial June 2012. (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

ON THE LIST of things you can be certain of in life, death and taxes have company: Porngate. There will be more Porngate.

As you've no doubt heard by now, thousands of emails tied to the state pornographic-email scandal - which itself is tied to a separate grand-jury scandal that's getting awfully close to ending the career of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane - could be released to the public any day now.

It's difficult for people who live outside the political world, people who have jobs, families or Netflix subscriptions, to keep track of the swirling plotlines and players.

But some names stand out more than others. And the odds are pretty good that when the next barrage of smut-saturated emails hits the fan, one man will feel more heat than others: Frank Fina.

The former Attorney General's Office star prosecutor has been at the center of some of the region's biggest criminal trials, from the Bonusgate and Computergate corruption scandals that led to the arrests of more than 30 politicians and staffers to the conviction of Jerry Sandusky, the notorious child predator and former Penn State University football team's defensive coordinator.

Fina also has been embroiled in a feud with Kane worthy of "Game of Thrones." It reared its head again in August, when 400 pages of sexist, racist, homophobic and pornographic emails that Fina sent or received while he worked for the Attorney General's Office several years ago were made public. The emails were discovered during a Kane-directed review of the Sandusky investigation.

The ensuing furor caused by the release of the emails led Fina's current boss, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, to call for Fina to undergo sensitivity training along with Marc Costanzo and Pat Blessington, two other former state prosecutors who now work for Williams and who also were included on the state-email chain.

Their troubles are supposed to be in the past, but complaints filed within the D.A.'s office and with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggest otherwise.

It's crazy, convoluted stuff. How it all ends is anybody's guess, but this much is certain: None of these controversies is going away soon. And, depending on the content of the next cache of emails, the situation could get much, much worse.

Fina occupies a unique role. Depending on your point of view, he's been both a victim and an instigator. Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman charged Kane in August with leaking grand-jury material to the Daily News in 2014 in an alleged attempt to embarrass Fina.

But Kane allegedly sought revenge because she believed that Fina first had embarrassed her by leaking information to the Inquirer about a political-corruption case she had decided not to prosecute.

The Daily News reached out to local political and legal insiders to get a better sense of Frank Fina.

Some demurred when asked to discuss him. Others painted a complicated picture of an intelligent, no-nonsense lawyer who attacks criminal cases with unmatched intensity and zeal - but who also somehow didn't have enough sense to realize that spreading around hard-core porn images in an office that regularly investigates child-pornography cases could be, well, problematic.

'The best prosecutor'

Fina has mostly shied away from media interviews over the years, but a 2008 profile in the Harrisburg Patriot-News managed to shed some light on his background.

He's the son of a cigar salesman, the paper reported, and graduated from high school in Connecticut. Found his way to Dickinson College in Carlisle, Cumberland County, and later to George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

Lawyer Marty Wilson first encountered Fina in a courtroom in the mid-1990s in Lewisburg, Union County.

At that time, Fina was working in the Lewisburg District Attorney's Office, and prosecuting one of Wilson's clients. "His approach was very reasonable, and it was very easy to tell my client he was being treated fairly," Wilson said.

Wilson later went to work for the D.A.'s office and became close friends with Fina.

"My father was a judge and a district attorney," Wilson said. "There are only two people I've met in my career who really had a sense of balance, and who were not trying to accomplish anything other than what they believe the law requires - my father being one, and Frank being the other."

The two men stayed in touch even after Fina went to work in 2003 for then-Attorney General Mike Fisher. Fina first handled appeals and legal services before being named chief of the Criminal Prosecution Section in 2005 by Fisher's successor, Tom Corbett.

In 2008, Corbett put Fina in charge of a newly created Public Corruption Unit staffed with a handful of lawyers, including Costanzo and Blessington.

"There's no ledger for politics in the crimes code," Fina was quoted as saying in the Patriot-News profile. "Anybody who violated the law is going to get it."

Wilson said Fina devoted his nights and weekends to digging deeper into cases like Bonusgate and Sandusky. "Frank's the best prosecutor I've ever run into," he said. "He's very bright, very intelligent, very well-read. I was very proud to work with him."

Wilson said he views Fina as a guy who courageously rocked the boat of Pennsylvania's notoriously corrupt and contented political establishment, and who now faces blowback - the email scandal - as a result.

Ironically, Kane casts herself in a nearly identical light: a moral outsider who shook up a network of good ol' boys by uncovering their dirty communications, and now faces criminal charges for leaking information to the media, of all things.

Despite that overlap in self-perception, Fina and Kane couldn't find much common ground. Philadelphia magazine earlier this year recalled the frosty exchange the two shared shortly after Kane took office in 2013 and Fina was about to move to the D.A.'s office:

The scene was tense. Fina sarcastically referenced his hard drive, which had been removed without his knowledge, according to the magazine. A discussion of a political-corruption investigation that Fina had overseen - the case of lobbyist Tyron Ali, who bribed numerous Philly lawmakers - went nowhere.

The case ultimately escalated into the political equivalent of all-out war, with Kane saying publicly that it was racially biased and couldn't be prosecuted. Williams joined the fray, taking the case and successfully prosecuting it.

'He plays to win'

Defense attorney Dan Raynak represented former state Rep. Mike Veon, the onetime House Democratic whip who in June was released from state prison after serving five years for using taxpayer money to pay for bonuses to employees who did campaign work for him. Veon was one of the biggest casualties of the state's Bonusgate prosecution. Raynak has a less-glowing take on Fina.

"I don't believe Mr. Fina was very honest in his dealings with myself and my co-counsel," Raynak said. "I'm not going to go into specifics, but that was my impression."

Raynak, whose law practice is in Phoenix, heard all about the pornographic-email scandal that has tripped up his onetime courtroom opponent.

"Would it surprise me that he was doing something that he shouldn't? No," Raynak said. "But I can't say I anticipated he'd be caught up in something like this."

Another veteran defense lawyer who has crossed paths with Fina described him in blunt terms. "If he thinks you're going to punch him in the face, he's going to punch you five times in the face," the lawyer said. "That's the way Frank is. His attitude is, 'I'm going to crush you.' He plays to win."

That lawyer, however, conceded: "At the end of the day, I do respect him, even if I disagree with him."

Other lawyers in Pennsylvania are not so kind, one describing Fina as a "cretin" with a juvenile sense of humor - often at the expense of women - and Machiavellian legal tactics that bend the rules to get his desired results.

Last month, former state Rep. Brett Feese, convicted in 2011 in the "Computergate" scandal for using state resources for political purposes, filed a postconviction petition that accused Fina of helping Dauphin County President Judge Richard Lewis' law clerk land a job in the Attorney General's Office while Feese's case was in front of Lewis.

The petition cites documents that Feese's attorney obtained through Right-to-Know Act requests. Three weeks after the guilty verdict, Lewis' law clerk was hired by the Attorney General's Office, according to the petition.

"That was fast," a deputy attorney general emailed Fina after the law clerk was hired, according to the petition.

Feese's petition, which asks that his conviction be overturned, also accuses state prosecutors of improperly destroying notes from interviews with 94 witnesses. Feese previously had raised that issue on appeal and lost.

'Contrite and upset'

In late August, the state Supreme Court unsealed nearly 400 pages of emails sent and received several years ago by Fina and other members of the Attorney General's Office.

The documents were collected in a large binder in the Supreme Court's Prothonotary Office in City Hall. To describe the content as graphic seems like an understatement.

"FW: New Office Motivation Policy Posters," read a 2009 email that Fina sent to his colleagues. It contained images with a theme of women sexually pleasing their bosses. "Take advantage of every opening," read the caption of one, showing a woman having anal sex. "Making your boss happy is your only job," read another, showing a woman performing oral sex on a man.

This put Seth Williams in a bad spot. He had to do something . . . but what? Williams took a week to review the material, and reached out to other prosecutors and business professionals for advice.

The result, announced on the Friday before Labor Day: sensitivity training. Williams spoke at length with reporters after the holiday weekend and tried to walk a fine line, both chastising and defending Fina - and, to a lesser extent, Costanzo and Blessington, who were only on the receiving end of the emails.

On the one hand, he said, the emails were "ignorant, disgusting, moronic, idiotic, bordering on racist and misogynistic and somewhat homophobic."

On the other: The emails were exchanged years ago, when all three men were working for the state, not for the city. And Fina was "contrite and upset with himself," Williams said.

Everybody makes mistakes, right? "I'm not as good as the best things my mother says about me," Williams said, "and I'm not as bad as some of the worst things I did while I was pledging at my fraternity in college."

He noted that his decision to retain all three men also was rooted in the fact that they'd been supportive of minority and female colleagues in the D.A.'s Office, and haven't made women feel objectified or uncomfortable.

But that might not be entirely accurate. A person familiar with the inner workings of the District Attorney's Office told the Daily News that several female employees had voiced concerns about Costanzo earlier this year.

Cameron Kline, Williams' spokesman, initially said that neither Fina nor Costanzo nor Blessington had any "HR [human resources] issues." But First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann yesterday confirmed that the D.A.'s Office had received a complaint about Costanzo. The matter was "seriously investigated," McCann said, adding that he couldn't reveal more information because of personnel rules.

Williams said he also had talked to employees in the Attorney General's Office, but it is unclear how deep he dug.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, for example, reported last September that the Attorney General's Office had paid $15,000 to settle a complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Special Agent Dianne Buckwash, alleging that she had been discriminated against because she is a woman.

Buckwash also wrote: "The Criminal Law Division executives were also known to share racy pictures and make derogatory comments against women."

Fina is named in the complaint - just below that allegation - as one of the men Buckwash believed to be "primarily responsible for the discrimination," according to sources familiar with the report.

The Tribune-Review previously had reported on only a redacted version of Buckwash's complaint that did not include most names. The settlement agreement, in which the Attorney General's Office denied discriminating against Buckwash regarding salary and promotions, was signed by First Deputy Attorney General Bruce Beemer, the newspaper reported.

Kline declined to comment this week on whether Williams had contacted Beemer or anyone else at the Attorney General's Office familiar with Buckwash's allegations to see who was named in the complaint.

Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo also declined to comment on the complaint.

Williams was asked if he could understand why people were troubled by the idea of prosecutors investigating sex crimes and sharing graphic sexual photos for fun at work, including one emailed image that showed a little boy peering into a little girl's underwear.

He reiterated that he doesn't defend any of material that Fina and countless others shared. But he also riffed on the idea that people in law enforcement sometimes adopt peculiar habits.

"If you were to go talk to police detectives in the Homicide Unit, they say things and joke with each other in a way that an outsider might not understand," Williams said.

"I prosecuted cases for six months in which children were sexually assaulted . . . [and] I became a little too close with a guy named Jack Daniels during that period."

'Should have known better'

Retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille was a driving force behind the suspension last fall of fellow Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who also was a frequent participant in emailed porn exchanges. McCaffery ultimately retired.

Castille still can't quite believe that so many people who held such important positions in the state could spend their work hours so recklessly.

"All of them should have known better," he said. "When I saw some of the names involved, I thought somebody should have stepped forward and said, 'We can't do this stuff.' "

Castille, who served as Philadelphia's district attorney from 1986 to 1991, said he thought Williams handled the Fina controversy "fairly."

"When I was district attorney, I told all my staff, 'What you put in writing is going to be out there someday, and you're going to wish you didn't put it in writing,' " Castille said.

"You have to make sure it's something you wouldn't want your mother to read about on the front page of the Daily News."

Robert Davis Jr., a Harrisburg lawyer who teaches professional ethics at the Widener University School of Law, echoed Castille's sentiments.

Professional-conduct rules call for supervising lawyers to step in if the colleagues get out of line - which is exactly what didn't happen when judges, prosecutors and other state employees were gleefully forwarding each other a daily dose of porn.

"To put that stuff on a state computer is just totally wrong. The arrogance is just stunning," Davis said.

"At some point in your life, something comes in front of you, and the thought goes through your head: 'This could make my career or break my career.' You have to stand tall."

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