The breathtakingly rapid rise and agonizingly slow decline of Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane mercifully ended Wednesday August 17th with her resignation one day after her conviction on nine criminal counts, including perjury for leaking grand jury information. Her departure dropped the curtain on the last two-and-a-half years of turmoil and dysfunction in the state’s top law enforcement department.
Kane’s conviction appeared inevitable ever since the Montgomery County District Attorney criminally charged her last year after one former top aide and a political consultant testified against her. Her political fate was perhaps inevitable. She was a political novice who created a long running and self-destructive feud with other prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
Kane’s resignation had to be a relief – if not to her, then to the voters of Pennsylvania, the attorney general’s employees, and to most of the state’s elected officials who dealt with her. Her tenure in office was a disaster.
Recently, the state legislature twice moved unsuccessfully to oust her from office while Governor Tom Wolf and multiple Republican and Democratic lawmakers repeatedly called for her resignation. Last year the state Supreme Court indefinitely suspended her law license while she continued to remain in office.
This brief synopsis of the Kane ordeal recapitulates only the “what” of Kane’s spectacular fall; the “why” seems more important if we are to learn from this sordid chapter of state history.
Pennsylvania’s long and notorious history of graft and corruption stretching back to Civil War days provide no perspective on Kathleen Kane. She was not corrupt as that term is usually understood nor does she stand accused of graft or bribery. Her crimes were personal and political, not economic or financial.
She saw enemies everywhere and to be fair some were even real. The act that first unhorsed her – leaking grand jury testimony – is not that uncommon and rarely prosecuted.
Moreover, Kane believed the state’s male-dominated political establishment was threatened by her historic victory as the first elected woman attorney general in the state. She railed against this “old boy’s network” throughout her tenure.
But her response to her enemies – real and imagined – was grotesquely distorted, unbalanced and frenzied. American political scientist Richard Hofstadter famously described the “paranoid style” in American politics; he could have been describing Kathleen Kane.
Kane often seemed to lack the temperament needed to fulfill the duties of a statewide elected official. Her much-documented quarrels with senior aides illustrated this: she had eight spokespersons in less than four years as well as a veritable revolving door of top deputies and other senior aides.
Probably most reflective of her lack of professionalism was a long running feud with Frank Fina, the prosecutor who headed the case against the former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky case who went to prison for sexually abusing children sexually. Many of Kane’s problems were directly linked to attempts to discredit Fina who she blamed for trying to discredit her. The impulse for revenge and retaliation seemed to obsess her.
It was more than political paranoia that felled a politician who many believed – before her troubles began – was on a career trajectory that would land her in the governor’s office or higher.
Kane’s inexperience in high office hobbled her from the beginning. Typically, statewide office in Pennsylvania is only achieved after years of experience in elected positions in local government or the legislature. Previous attorneys’ general had been elected district attorneys or had extensive experience as federal prosecutors. Yet, Kane had never run for any office or served in any capacity at the state level before her election.
Many of her early problems can be traced to that very lack of experience. Prior to her 2012 election, she worked as an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County. But she lacked managerial skills in running a large, complex department, or in the hiring and organizing of a large high-level staff.
Equally fatal was her lack of political judgment. Sound political judgment is perhaps thesine qua non of the successful statewide politician. Kane exhibited poor political judgment almost from the beginning, early on shutting down a promising corruption investigation, awkwardly threatening to sue a Philadelphia newspaper for printing unflattering stories about her, and ignoring staff advice again and again.
Her stunning refusal to prosecute a sting operation involving four Philadelphia lawmakers and a traffic court judge – four of whom were successfully prosecuted by the Philadelphia district attorney – left the impression she was both politically motivated and lacked prosecutorial integrity.
The appearance of blatant partisanship was even more evident in her handling of the pornographic email scandal that engulfed her office – initially releasing only the names of individuals with ties to Frank Fina and former Attorney General and Gov. Tom Corbett. The litany of political miscues, wrongheaded decisions and self-inflicted wounds continued throughout her time in office.
Some have likened Kane’s political demise to a classic Greek tragedy. She was cut down by character flaws she neither recognized nor controlled. Politically paranoid, she lacked experience in high office, frequently used bad judgment, was temperamentally ill suited for state politics, and tended to make enemies rather than allies. She was routinely motivated by the need to seek revenge or recrimination.
And like a classic Greek tragedy, it is hard to see how her story could have turned out differently. That is her tragedy – and it was ours.