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The Strange Smell From Pennsylvania

buildings in downtown Harrisburg, Pa., including the State Capitol
Harrisburg, Pa. Photo by Harvey Barrison.

My lifelong interest in meteorology comes in surprisingly handy. It helps me anticipate storms that could affect my business, and last week it helped me determine the source of a strange odor.

I happened to be in New York when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court temporarily suspended the law license of Kathleen Kane, the state attorney general. Though the action did not remove her from office, it turned her into an attorney general who could not actually appear in court or otherwise function as a licensed attorney.

Odd, to say the least. And at first blush, probably something I would approve, since I have written before that prosecutors and law enforcement officials who abuse their positions are not going to stop until they face professional discipline for their misconduct. This was exactly the sort of professional discipline I wanted.

In this instance, the alleged misconduct is that Kane leaked information from a secret grand jury proceeding (an offense that, if strictly punished, would leave much of this country bereft of prosecutors) and then lied about it to investigators, thereby obstructing justice. She has denied the charges.

Real consequences for genuine prosecutorial misconduct would normally earn my applause, but then I caught a whiff of that peculiar smell. The prevailing winds in the New York City area come from the southwest, blowing more or less directly from Pennsylvania’s state capital, Harrisburg.

Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg are pretty much like their counterparts everywhere else these days: They seldom agree on anything. But it so happens that there are widespread calls for Kane to resign her position, a step she has (as of this writing) refused to take. So for now, she is running the attorney general’s office as a sort of glorified administrative assistant, issuing paychecks and schedules but not actually practicing law. Lawmakers have reportedly been looking into a never-before-used constitutional provision to try to remove her from office, before any of the criminal proceedings against her are adjudicated.

It seemed odd to me that both parties were evidently so eager to rid the state of Kane’s services. It seemed even odder that the state’s highest court felt the need to inject itself into the situation by effectively suspending her, even though a statement from the court indicated that its order “should not be construed” as removing Kane “from elected office.”

It all made me think that Kane might have a point when she says she is being targeted by an “old boys’ network” among the state’s officials. Considering that Pennsylvania is the state that gave the world the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at its most prestigious public university, the idea does not seem utterly far-fetched.

It seems even less so when one considers the fact that after taking office in 2013, Kane reviewed the way in which her predecessors (including former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican) investigated the Sandusky affair. In the course of that investigation, Kane turned up a circle of state officials - apparently including at least one member of the State Supreme Court - who circulated pornographic and otherwise risque images (thankfully, only of adults) among themselves on their official government email.

Bingo! Source of odor identified. Call the EPA. Or the PTA. Or somebody.

While Kane may be legally backed into a corner, she has indicated she has no intention of walking away quietly. Kane has said that despite her suspended license, she intends to continue rooting out “the culture of misogyny and racially/religiously offensive behavior that has permeated law enforcement and members of the judiciary in this Commonwealth for years.” She, at least, seems confident of the odor’s source too.

I have no idea whether Kane did anything warranting her prosecution or removal from office. I am glad to see her professional conduct being investigated - but in this case, it seems the investigation is, in fact, in the hands of government officials who have reason to see her as a threat. And the Pennsylvania high court’s abrupt intervention, while the charges against Kane remain pending, goes a little beyond peculiar.

It actually stinks so much that it caught my attention far downwind, all the way over in New York.

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