A federal judge on Tuesday tossed out a defamation suit against Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, saying even false remarks by her did not do enough damage to the plaintiffs for her to face a lawsuit.
Even if Kane's statements defamed former state prosecutor Frank Fina, former State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, and three other former state officials, they were "mere speech" and the men did not suffer the concrete harm of being fired or disciplined, the judge ruled.
In his ruling, which killed the suit at an early stage, District Judge Harvey Bartle III acknowledged that Kane is to go on trial next month on charges of violating grand jury secrecy rules in what a prosecutor says was an attempt to leak material to embarrass Fina, a political enemy.
"It is true that this alleged leak goes beyond mere speech and that Kane has been criminally charged in connection with it," he wrote.
Even so, the judge found that the leak did not violate Fina's civil rights.
Bartle also dismissed the legal action that Fina and the others filed against the Daily News, which published an article based on the material provided by Kane. The judge, however, said the plaintiffs could refile that part of the case in state court.
Fina, Noonan, and former state prosecutors E. Marc Costanzo and Richard A. Sheetz Jr., as well as Randy Feathers, a former top state investigator, filed the defamation suit in U.S. District Court in November.
The suit said Kane had not only illegally leaked secret material, but had suggested that the plaintiffs had ignored child-abuse complaints and even exchanged child porn - all claims from which the attorney general's staff later retreated.
The plaintiffs said Kane had retaliated against them and tried to muzzle them because she blamed Fina and his allies for a series of articles in the Inquirer in 2014 saying she had shut down a "sting" targeting Philadelphia Democratic elected officials without bringing charges. Fina oversaw that bribery investigation before Kane took office.
"Fina," Bartle wrote, "was not terminated, demoted, disciplined or subjected to any other employment action as a result of his criticism of Kane."
Instead, the judge said, Fina "merely bore the generalized critique" from Kane about his handling of the sting.
In that critique, Kane said the investigation might have been tainted by racial targeting and was so poorly designed as to be "not prosecutable."
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams rejected those criticisms, adopted the cases for prosecution, and has successfully prosecuted five of the elected officials.
In the suit, Fina and others also contended that Kane singled them out for public humiliation by naming them as participants in the exchange of porn on state computers while in office. They said she outed them while keeping secret the identities of scores of other participants.
In the immediate fallout from Kane's disclosure, Feathers and Sheetz both lost jobs they had taken after leaving the Attorney General's Office.
Fina became a city prosecutor on Williams' staff after leaving state office. But, after a drumbeat of criticism from women's groups and some on City Council, he left that position last month.