Attorney General Kathleen Kane
Attorney General Kathleen Kane (AP Photo)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has dismissed criticism of her handling of an investigation into leading state officials from Philadelphia allegedly taking bribes and kickbacks as “nothing more than the good ol’ boys club playing political games to discredit me in order to fulfill their own selfish and improper agenda.”

Kane made that comment in a statement to The Philadelphia Inquirer, which reported that she discontinued an investigation into Philadelphia Democrats who are alleged to have accepted payments.

Joseph C. Peters, the spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, responded to a request from the Law Weekly to clarify whether the comment was meant as an allegation of sexism by saying in an email, “No matter the gender, entrenched political interests often protect themselves by attempting to discredit those whom they perceive as a threat. In addition, sexism is an unfortunate possibility in this situation.”

Attorneys and political watchers the Law Weekly spoke with said they interpreted Kane’s remark as an allegation of sexism, with some noting that Kane has invoked the phrase “good ol’ boys” with a connotation of gender inequality in the past.

But is Kane being treated any differently than any other attorney general would be under the circumstances?

Those the Law Weekly spoke with said that while sexism is inarguably a problem in the legal and political realms, they believe the questions being leveled at Kane are fair.

G. Terry Madonna, a professor and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said he believes the criticism of Kane “has nothing to do with gender.”

“I think that with any attorney general who had backed off of a prosecution, given the Inquirer story, there would have been a series of follow-ups that occurred,” Madonna said.

According to Madonna, fighting against the “good ol’ boys” in Harrisburg was one of the key platforms of Kane’s campaign for attorney general.

While rooting out cronyism in Harrisburg has long been a go-to campaign promise for Pennsylvania political hopefuls, Madonna said, he believes Kane’s use of the phrase “good ol’ boys” during her campaign was an attempt to appeal to female voters, the majority of whom are Democrats.

“I interpreted it as a play on gender more than anything else, because why bring up ‘boys’?” Madonna said.

But Madonna said attempting to blame gender bias for the questions and criticism surrounding Kane’s decision to call off a long-running investigation into Philadelphia Democrats is a stretch.

“When you cancel an investigation that had been underway for three years, when you say you’re not moving forward, when there’s evidence being put out by credible newspapers,” it’s difficult to say Kane is being unfairly criticized simply because she’s a woman, Madonna added.

Madonna also said that while it’s possible the information was leaked to the Inquirer as part of a partisan political tactic, that’s not particularly unusual.

“Maybe you make the argument that they got it from somebody for partisan reasons, but what’s new about that?” Madonna said.

Hope C. Lefeber, a criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia, said she believes the only person making this a sexism issue is Kane.

“I think she’s taking what would be a party issue or political issue and making it a gender issue,” Lefeber said, adding, “I think she’s diverting attention from what happened here and trying to take it to another level and make allegations about sexism.”

Still, Philadelphia criminal defense attorney NiaLena Caravasos said in an email that while she is not in a position to comment on the Kane situation, “the banding together of the good ol’ boys club is definitely a reality often experienced by strong women who are independent thinkers and perhaps perceived as a threat by male colleagues.”

Lefeber agreed that sexism is a problem in the legal community, but she said she believes Kane’s decision to end the investigation is being questioned because of her political affiliation, not her gender.

“If anything, the old boys club of Democrats put her in power and now she’s being attacked for not prosecuting them,” Lefeber said, adding that she believes Kane’s allegations of sexism are akin to “crying wolf.”

“When I see women do that, it’s very disappointing,” Lefeber said. “I think there’s real sexism in the law and we should reserve our criticism until it’s really blatant.”

Madonna said that if Kane does seem to be under more scrutiny than the average attorney general typically might be, it’s likely because of the controversial measures she’s already taken during her short time in office, not because of her gender.

“Not arguably, in about a year, she has been involved in some very high-profile decisions,” Madonna said, citing Kane’s appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the state’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky case, as well as her decision not to defend the state’s law banning same-sex marriage.

Lefeber said Kane should not use sexism to deflect the type of scrutiny all public officials must face.

“If you are a woman in a position of power, as she is, you have to be ready for criticism generally; you have to have tough skin,” Lefeber said. “What, she can’t take this? She’s the attorney general. The decisions she makes are often controversial.”

On March 16, the Inquirer reported that Kane’s office shut down a corruption investigation that reportedly involved at least four Philadelphia Democrats accepting payments. The payments, the Inquirer reported, ranged from $500 to $2,000.

But, at a press conference the next day, Kane said the corruption investigation was “nonprosecutable” once state prosecutors dismissed some 2,000 charges against the lead informant in the case. Dismissing the charges fatally tainted the informant’s credibility, which not only jeopardized the prosecution’s lead witness, but also the use of the tapes, Kane said.

According to a timeline released by Kane’s office, the sting began in October 2010, when Gov. Tom Corbett was the state attorney general. The investigation focused on members of the state General Assembly for alleged violations under the Election Code, the State Ethics Act and the Bribery Statute. Several taping sessions were conducted each month until April 2012, the timeline indicated.

Kane was elected as state attorney general Nov. 6, 2012, and the charges were dismissed against the informant Nov. 30, 2012, the timeline said. Kane, who took office as attorney general Jan. 15, 2013, said she first learned of the investigation at her first staff meeting two days after her swearing-in.

The informant was named by the Inquirer as Tyron B. Ali, a lobbyist who was arrested in a $430,000 fraud case. According to Kane, 2,033 fraud charges were dismissed against him.

At the press conference, Kane said that in addition to the tainted lead witness, her office found evidence of racial targeting. According to Kane, two sources reported to two different government agencies that they were told to target only members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

“We had two separate individuals reporting to two independent law enforcement agencies. We also had documentary evidence to support that assertion,” she said. “This case was done and over before I even took office.”

Kane said her office is reviewing whether it will be able to release the documentary evidence.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •