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Proclaiming himself a “pro-death” conservative, Ernie D. Preate Jr. rose to become attorney general of Pennsylvania, with a clear path to the governor’s house. Days before the 1994 Republican primary for governor, he was about even in the polls with Tom Ridge. But just then, a report was released on Preate’s fund-raising abuses. He lost the race and ended up in prison. “What do you call a conservative who’s been to jail? A liberal.” Preate cringes at the old joke, but he proudly admits being an anti-death crusader for criminal justice reform. Let’s just say he’s traveled a ways. Preate skipped the 2000 Republican National Convention in favor of the Shadow Convention, where he was received as a hero. On March 19, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously voted to readmit him to the bar, after a five-year suspension. “I’m grateful for this second chance at life,” he says. “I have unfinished business, and the business I have is not on the side of the powerful.” Preate’s career can only be described in terms of rebirth. In his first life, he wrote a manual called “Prosecuting a Death Penalty” and put five men on death row. Last year, he wrote an essay on “De Facto Racism” and ghost-wrote a brief to re-enfranchise felons. In his first life, Preate avowedly “used prisoners as whipping boys to get votes.” Now he visits the lifers he put away and receives satchels full of prison fan mail. “As a lifer, you are my only hope,” inmate Damion Leafey wrote in a Christmas card. A prison newsletter cartoon, which hangs on Preate’s wall, depicts an inmate rubbing an Aladdin’s lamp and making three wishes: “Give me the power to vote. … Bring back family day. … Make Ernie Preate president.” At age 60, Preate doesn’t want to be president, or even mayor of Scranton, Pa. He just wants to be a lawyer again. “My skills have always been those of a litigator,” he says, “and the people of Pennsylvania have always viewed me as a litigator.” Granting his wish, the Pennsylvania high court has declared him redeemed. But the question remains: Was the redemption deserved? Just how grievous was Ernie Preate’s sin, and how did it transpire that the sinner was reborn? A PROSECUTOR’S PROSECUTOR After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Preate volunteered for the Marines. He served as a platoon commander in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, earning five medals for distinguished service and ending up a captain. Upon his return, he became a prosecutor in his hometown of Scranton. He was elected Lackawanna County district attorney in 1977 and developed a reputation, winning 19 of 19 murder trials. Elected state attorney general in 1988, he carried through on his tough-on-crime platform. Preate pushed through mandatory minimum sentences and a death penalty for drug offenders. He established drug task forces. He supported boot camps for hard-core juvenile offenders, strict time limits for signing death warrants and a tougher standard for commutations. At the same time, one can find signs of moderation in Preate’s public record. As a member of the governor’s advisory board, he voted to commute 40 life sentences during his six years in office. (By contrast, no Pennsylvania sentences have been commuted in the six years since he resigned.) He opposed congressional evisceration of habeas corpus rights during the 1990s. Speaking in support of his readmission to the bar, Larry Frankel, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Preate had always backed generous funding for capital defense. Wherever on the political spectrum these policies placed Preate, they won him re-election as AG in 1992. But the seeds of the scandal that were to cut short his term by a year and a half had been sown during his first statewide run, in 1987-88. A fairly complete story from the prosecution perspective (none of it proved in court) can be pieced together with the help of documents that were sealed at the time of the investigation. In 1987, Preate was desperate to retire his debts from his races for district attorney so as to become a viable statewide candidate, according to a 1995 memo from Asst. U.S. Attorney William A. Behe to the federal probation office. Preate came to rely for funds on Joseph Kovach, a Scranton businessman who tapped into a network of illegal video poker machine distributors when video poker was under investigation by the state attorney general’s office. Preate accepted $40,000 in contributions from video poker interests — half in legal, properly recorded donations by check, and half in illegal, disguised cash donations from the same individuals. Kovach later gave a written account of his fund raising to the FBI. Here is Behe’s version of Kovach’s account: “Preate told Kovach that the poker machines were not on his priority list and saw nothing at all wrong with them, and his main concern was with drugs and the drug problem. The unmistakable impression conveyed to Kovach from Preate’s statements was that if money were given to Preate the illegal poker machines … would be protected by nonenforcement of the law.” Preate denies that he intended to promise a quid pro quo: “I told Kovach ‘low priority’; he interpreted that as ‘no prosecution.’ “ In February and March of 1990, the attorney general’s office under Preate resolved the case against Kovach and the other video poker operators, dismissing the charges against individuals and accepting from each business a no contest plea to misdemeanor gambling, with a $7,500 fine. At the time that his office was accepting these pleas, Preate loudly summoned Pennsylvania’s U.S. Attorneys to a summit meeting and announced a federal-state crackdown on video poker. According to the Behe memo, however, when the FBI asked for access to grand jury transcripts, Preate’s reaction was, “No fuckin’ way.” It was at this point that the FBI became suspicious and stepped up its probe of Preate’s video poker dealings. Preate had effectively invited the cops into his own kitchen. In May 1995, the U.S. Justice Department’s organized crime racketeering section chief gave the green light to indict Preate for racketeering. Preate’s lawyers began to discuss a plea soon thereafter. While accepting responsibility for his actions, Preate says that he could have won acquittal at trial, and he describes the motivation for his plea as a family matter. Preate’s father and namesake, once a poor Italian immigrant, became the lawyer for Scranton’s chamber of commerce and a town father. As the son drove down Ernie D. Preate Sr. Drive in Scranton, his conversation turned to the father’s deathbed. The senior Mr. Preate had wanted his son to fight the indictment and was ready to revoke the trusts for his 12 grandchildren to bankroll a defense. Mr. Preate Jr. was unwilling to imperil the young generation’s schooling or his brothers’ careers. “I said, ‘Dad, it’s not going to happen.’ ” Both realized that a plea would mean prison time. “ My dad shook his head and said, ‘You’re the strong one, you can do it.’ “ Attorney General Preate signed a plea agreement before indictment and announced his resignation on June 6, 1995. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud, based on having taken $20,000 in illegal and falsely reported cash contributions. At sentencing, a lawyer for Preate, Herbert Stern, argued, “If these reporting violations were not incorporated into a federal mail fraud indictment, these charges would amount to state campaign reporting violations, which are seldom prosecuted inside court, and when prosecuted generally result only in modest fines.” Looking back on his crime, Preate still describes it as a technical campaign finance violation and argues that the prosecutors wouldn’t have stated in the agreement that the plea fit the crime “if they thought I was on the take.” Similarly, “they wouldn’t have settled for mail fraud if they could have nailed me on RICO.” Be that as it may, on Jan. 14, 1996, Chief U.S. District Judge Sylvia Rambo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania found that he had abused a position of public trust and sentenced him to 14 months. “I can do federal prison standing on my head,” Preate said. “I’m a strong guy. I did my time in hell in Vietnam.” A PROSECUTOR IN PRISON Beneath the bluster, Preate was a humbled, vulnerable man with a firm grounding in Catholic notions of social justice and an open mind. When he walked into the mess hall on his first night at the federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn., and saw a sea of brown and black faces, he was stunned. He began the transformation from sword-swinging avenger of the middle class to spokesman for the criminal class. “I met young black men sentenced to nine years in prison for a small amount of crack,” he says. “Sure, everyone knows it. But all of a sudden when you know the kid, you talk to the kid, you say to yourself, ‘My God, what are we doing? This is a good kid.’ “ The prisoners knew in advance about their celebrity colleague from the TV news. At first, they were about as interested in his humanity as, in his past life, he had been in theirs. One of Preate’s cellmates, Larry Hobson, a black, middle-aged drug dealer from the Midwest, refused to speak to him for two months. One day, Preate noticed that Hobson was reading a self-help book, “Stop the Aging Now,” and asked him about it. Hobson gave his older cellmate tips on eating well in prison. That, says Preate, “was the start of a beautiful friendship.” He won over others by helping them with their studies, letter-writing or jailhouse lawyering. Indeed, Preate helped obtain freedom for two prisonmates. On Dec. 16, 1996, the day before Preate left for a halfway house, Hobson threw a farewell party for the ex- attorney general. Twenty-six inmates gathered to eat improvised tacos. “The Mexican cleaning guys pressed the tortilla shells with their irons,” Preate recalls, and then they filled the shells with tuna fish and hot peppers, some of it stolen from the commissary. “I didn’t have a goodbye party from the attorney general’s office,” says Preate. “This was the greatest party I ever had.” BEHIND THE NEW DOOR In his letter of resignation to Gov. Ridge, Preate had written that “as God closes this door in my life, I have faith that he will open another one for me, for his greater glory.” What lay behind the new door he had no idea. He would never have guessed “prison rights advocate.” Upon entering prison, he had dreamed of returning as a prosecutor. Later, he toyed with the idea of a retail franchise. Getting to know inmates changed his preconceptions, but it didn’t exactly radicalize him. The one thing he knew he wanted to do when he got out was buy a Harley Davidson. And that’s the first thing he did. On June 11, 1997, while riding his new motorcycle in Scranton, Preate took his eyes off the road, let his hands drift and hit a curb as he rounded a turn. He flew off the side of a bridge and fell 40 feet into a concrete drainage ditch. “God reached out and saved me,” says Preate. “I believe that.” Preate’s shattered pelvis was rebuilt with 16 titanium pins and screws, and his body was wracked by a life-threatening infection. During his brush with death he experienced a reawakening, he says. “I promised God that I’d do this work when He saved my life,” says Preate, referring to his criminal justice advocacy. “When you ask God for mercy, you can’t turn around and say, ‘Let’s kill the other guy.’ “ At this crucial point in Preate’s spiritual odyssey, Pastor Jim Law of Second Chance Ministries, who had befriended Preate in prison, invited him to speak. On Sept. 28, 1997, just after his release from the hospital, Preate leaned heavily on his crutches and addressed the prison ministry’s annual banquet. He shocked the crowd (as he’s shocked many crowds since) by tossing out the script of his old “tough on crime” commercials and voicing what he calls ugly truths about the penal system, a bit like the Warren Beatty character in the movie “Bulworth.” Then the plot of Preate’s life got weirder than “Bulworth.” At the dinner’s end, Diana Hollis, a prison nurse who is married to a life-term prisoner, buttonholed the ex-AG. “Do you remember me?” she began unpromisingly. “You voted against my husband’s commutation.” A move was afoot, Ms. Hollis explained, to amend the commutation process to make it virtually impossible for lifers to be pardoned. Other wives of lifers gathered around and asked, “Can you stop this?” THE NEW PREATE The question marked the birth of Preate’s new career. Registered as principal of the Lobbyist Coalition, he testifies frequently in Harrisburg, Pa. In the belief that hundreds of Pennsylvania prisoners are innocent, he has drafted a bill on post-conviction DNA testing and is helping to push it through the state Senate. His other main priorities are to promote parole for lifers after 25 years and to increase resources for capital defense. The new Preate favors a death penalty moratorium, the elimination of mandatory minimums and a legislative racial-impact statement. He has been especially outspoken on race. He testified in Harrisburg, “De facto racism is found not just in police arrests and [legislative mandates.] It is found in the charging function of police and prosecutors as well.” He told The National Law Journal, “If we keep locking up young black and Latino men at this rate, we’re headed for a social catastrophe.” What do his peers think of the new Ernie Preate? Liberals can be grudging; conservatives can be resentful. “I’ve helped put people on death row,” says one Pennsylvania Democrat, “and I never stood up and waved the flag about it. He had to go to a federal penitentiary to understand what it’s like? That prisoners have families and lives get wasted and some sentences are too long?” Skip Ebert, a Republican district attorney who was once Preate’s criminal law deputy, told a reporter from The Patriot-News, “Knowing the general’s need for approval and to be in the limelight, I probably could foresee that he would switch sides. … He’s always going to have that audience. It’s a totally different circle, but he will be just as admired.” To be fair, Preate was praised at his bar readmission hearing not only by the state’s ACLU director, but also by its Republican speaker of the House. “There’s not many of us who have been in his position,” says state legislator Thomas Caltagirone, a Democrat who once led a probe of Preate. “Ernie was essentially the next governor. He was a zealot and he was for locking ‘em all up. Then he saw for himself the injustice he created. I think his change is sincere, and I think it should be respected.” RETURN OF THE LITIGATOR In his first few weeks as a readmitted lawyer, Preate has been engaged in both criminal and civil cases. He is defending a police officer in a federal civil rights investigation, defending a person accused of aggravated assault and representing a health care whistleblower. In addition, he has been contacted by prisoners who would like to go to court to demand DNA testing to establish their innocence. If the Legislature passes the DNA testing bill, 8,000 prisoners will be eligible to apply for testing. Spending time with Preate shows him to be a man who thirsts for public redemption. Stroll with him to the convenience store on the corner by his brother’s law office, past the shifty-eyed businessmen still playing video poker, and you’ll hear the man behind the counter address him as “Mr. Mayor.” “You’re the only one who could clean things up around here,” says the counterman. Preate beams. He has no desire to be Scranton’s mayor, he says, but he loves hearing his name tossed about respectfully. Back in his office, where the nameplate still reads Ernie Preate Sr., the junior Preate tries hard to show his worthiness, rifling through three banks of mailboxes filled with news clippings. He has become the darling of Pennsylvania editorial writers. More than anyone else, he values the esteem of the sinners he once despised. Preate told a Catholic newspaper, “If Christ were to come back to Earth … he would go to death row, where he was before he died. He would say, ‘I forgive you.’ “ The old attorney general often visits the cellblocks of hard-core offenders, including the ones he prosecuted. He describes those visits in terms that could be construed as messianic or narcissistic or both: “I walk amongst them, among murderers and robbers and drug dealers. They stand and applaud.”

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