PHILADELPHIA — Over the past 15 months, beleaguered Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has released a steady stream of messages retrieved from a state email server that show state officials and employees trading pornographic, racist and misogynistic messages.
There are jokes about rape and sexual assault, photos mocking African Americans and other minorities, and insults leveled at people because of their weight, their sexual orientation or their religion. At least two state Supreme Court justices and numerous officials in the office of the attorney general have been caught in the scandal that has been dubbed “Porngate.”
A small sampling: A photo of a pantsless woman on her knees performing oral sex on a man is captioned “Making your boss happy is your only job.” A picture of a white man fending off two African American men while carrying a bucket of fried chicken reads “BRAVERY At Its Finest.” The sender of the email that shows a group of men engaged in sex included this message to friends, “How friggin gay are you?”
“When you see these emails . . . it’s just a swamp of misogyny, racism, homophobia and white privilege. It taints everybody, especially in the judicial branch,” said Bruce Ledewitz, associate dean of academic affairs and a law professor at Duquesne University School of Law. “Some of these things are really disgusting. You get the impression that every white male office holder in the state is a creep.”
It’s a massive scandal, with a new twist each week, but it has produced little uproar among state residents. Still, those who do pay attention say this epic mess is a disaster for the state’s justice system.
“Nothing in Pennsylvania [political] history even comes close to this drama, with the complexity and ongoing nature of this, the potential ramifications and multiple moving parts,” said longtime politics watcher G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
One complicating factor in the sprawling scandal is that it is hard to separate the “creeps” from the heroes. Kane, the first woman and first Democrat elected to that office, faces a criminal indictment for felony perjury and multiple misdemeanors in an unrelated case for allegedly leaking grand jury information to embarrass a political rival and then lying about it under oath.
The odd result of those criminal charges is that the state’s top law enforcement official has had her law license suspended and is fighting efforts in the state Senate to have her removed from office. Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, has asked her to resign.
Kane, whose office uncovered these scandalous emails through an unrelated investigation, has long maintained she’s innocent of the charges. She has cast herself as a victim of a powerful, political “old boys network,” angry that she’s shared their darkest emails.
But recently, Kane was forced to address questions about some emails sent by her twin sister, Ellen Granahan Goffer, a state prosecutor and one of Kane’s top deputies. One message, for example, featured a photo of a smiling woman with bruises on her face and the caption, “Domestic violence — because sometimes, you have to tell her more than once.”
Goffer’s emails only became public after critics pushed Kane to release them. Her office initially denied there were any emails involving the attorney general’s sister, then backtracked and said they’d found a few questionable exchanges.
Now Kane’s critics believe she is using the email scandal to divert attention from her own legal problems, releasing more emails each time the case against her worsens.
“She’s been manipulating this and has people thinking she’s a victim,” Ledewitz said. “If she’s properly removed, thousands of people will believe it had to do with the emails. Her use of the scandal is almost worse than the scandal itself.”
Madonna noted that Kane has released another round of emails each time her own legal troubles make news. About 10,000 messages have been shared at this point. There could be as many as 100,000.
“She could have released these at any time — she’s had more than a year — but she’s using them as a weapon against her critics and opponents,” he said. “If she goes down, it will be because she is convicted of the charges that she lied to a grand jury and then covered it up.”
Thus far, the scandal has resulted in the firing of at least six state employees and the resignation of a state Supreme Court judge. Another justice will go before a judicial ethics board later this month on charges of misconduct. If found guilty, he too could be removed from the bench.
At least 60 people working for the attorney general’s office were reprimanded because of sexually explicit content found on their state computers. Kane’s sister was not disciplined but she could be in the future.
But beyond the graphic and insulting nature of the exchanges, a larger problem is the seemingly chummy relationships the emails reveal between prosecutors and judges, court watchers said.
“That’s what separates and elevates our system of justice over all others in the world. When we learn that they are so close they are exchanging horribly improper emails with each other, we lose faith not only in the independence of the judiciary but also the judgment of both parties,” said Marc Bookman, director of the Philadelphia-based Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “Anyone who neutrally looked at Pennsylvania and tried to gauge the quality of jurisprudence in the state would have to laugh and say, ‘What in the world is going on there?’ . . . Our justice system is about as out of control as it can get.”
The grand jury testimony that led to Kane’s perjury indictment has links to one of the most notorious sex-abuse scandals in Pennsylvania history.
During her 2012 campaign for attorney general, Kane accused Gov. Tom Corbett (R) of mishandling the sexual abuse case against former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky for political reasons. The investigation began when Corbett was attorney general, but charges against Sandusky were not filed until Corbett was elected governor. . Kane implied that Corbett slowed the investigation so as not to lose the votes of thousands of Penn State alumni.
After being sworn into office in 2013, Kane appointed a special investigator to review Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky case. In June 2014, her investigator released a report exonerating Corbett.
What was not made public at the time, but is now dominating the headlines, was that the Sandusky investigation uncovered a trove of inappropriate emails. Once media outlets began to report the existence of these emails, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille demanded Kane release them. She provided 4,000 of the emails, including ones that show a political rival, Frank Fina, in a very bad light.
During his stint as a state prosecutor, Fina was part of the team that investigated and prosecuted Sandusky. When Kane came into office with her pledge to review that case, Fina and two other state prosecutors left and went to work for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
Fina is linked to many of the offensive emails — sending as well as receiving them. An email sent from his account with the subject line “FW: New Office Motivation Policy Posters” featured a photo of a woman having anal sex with the caption, “Take advantage of every opening.” Two other former state prosecutors who had joined the Philadelphia district attorney’s office were also part of many of the email exchanges.
The bad blood between Fina and Kane goes beyond the emails. When Kane took office in 2013, she decided not to pursue criminal charges against at least five Philadelphia Democrats — including four state elected officials and a traffic court judge — who were caught accepting cash or gifts from a lobbyist. Fina had been the top prosecutor during the three-year undercover investigation.
Someone in Kane’s office released to the media details about her decision in a clear move to embarrass her. Kane countered that she’d shut down the investigation because it was poorly managed and seemed to target African Americans.
Fina and two other top state prosecutors then moved to the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. It was a letter to court officials from Fina and another lawyer involved in the email investigation that prompted the probe resulting in the criminal charges against Kane — ones that could end what was once thought to be a promising political career.
Amid an uproar that he fire the three men, Williams conducted his own review. He noted that the three did not send or receive any emails while working in his office and there was no evidence they’d behaved improperly since joining his team. Instead, he said, he required them to complete one day of sensitivity training in November.
Bookman, who spent 27 years as a lawyer for the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia, questioned Williams’s judgement.
“Rather than making a decision that his office will operate on the highest plane, he decides sensitivity training is all that’s called for,” Bookman said. “We’re talking about grown men. This sort of thinking is not going to change with six hours of training.”
On Dec. 3, Philadelphia City Council members, by a vote of 13 to 2, approved a resolution calling on Williams to fire the three tainted lawyers. That same day, Williams announced all three had been moved to advisory roles. Kathleen Martin, who recently took the job as Williams’s chief of staff and chief integrity officer, said those reassignments were meant to reassure citizens that the office was dedicated to keeping the city safe.
“We’ve listened to the citizens,” she said. “We’re moving forward prosecuting cases with the goal of putting this all behind us.”
State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D) suggested that a better name for the scandal would be “Hategate” and those adjustments ignore a much larger problem exposed by the emails — that these prosecutors were biased against women and minorities.
“For anyone to say these were personal thoughts and they’re regretful and they can separate them from their jobs, that’s about as credible as me saying I can fly to the moon,” Williams said. “By myself.”
Pompilio is a freelance writer.