What to think about the precipitous fall of Attorney General Kathleen Kane — one The New York Times has labeled “the swiftest and steepest in memory, even in a state where corruption in politics is as common as the housefly”?
Kane was criminally charged Thursday by Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman in connection with a statewide grand jury investigation. She faces five felony counts including obstruction, official oppression, conspiracy and perjury.
Under intense pressure to resign, Kane so far refuses to do so and she is entitled to a presumption of innocence. But while her legal fate is unknown, her political fate is now sealed.
Where does her saga belong in the notorious annals of Pennsylvania’s disgraced politicians?
At first blush it might seem to belong to the inglorious history of corruption blazed by so many state politicians back to the Civil War era. Enough Pennsylvania politicians have gone to jail to fill a small prison. In modern times alone, scores of elected officials have been convicted, pleaded guilty or left office because of crimes they committed.
Some periods were worse than others. In the 1970s corrupt officials were so common that frequent references were made to the “crook-of the-month club.”
More recently, schemes to convert public dollars to political campaigns have been a main source of public corruption and wrecked political careers. The recent “bonusgate” defendants who were convicted of misusing public employees and resources for campaigning illustrate this type of corruption.
But Pennsylvania’s often squalid politics offers little perspective on the political demise of Kathleen Kane. The Kane saga doesn’t fit the corruption narrative at all. Her story echoes none of Pennsylvania’s sordid history of fraud and graft.
If not corruption, then what did bring down someone who two years ago was one of the most celebrated politicians in the state, believed by many to be on a career trajectory that would land her in the governor’s office or higher?
Close analysis of her tenure suggests four main factors responsible for her fall. Both singly and collectively they comprise a modern Greek tragedy. The strengths that first brought Kane to office morphed into the fatal flaws that finally brought her to disaster.
Temperament: Kane often seemed to lack the temperament needed to fulfill the duties of a statewide elected official. Her many and much documented quarrels with senior aides and consultants are illustrative (she has had seven press secretaries in her brief tenure). Probably most revealing was her long-running feud with Frank Fina, who was in charge of the Jerry Sandusky case. Many of Kane’s problems seem directly linked to discrediting Fina.
Inexperience: Many of her early problems can be traced to her lack of public experience. Prior to her election she worked as an assistant district attorney in Lackawanna County, which provided experience as a prosecutor. But she lacked managerial skills in running a large complex department, or in the hiring and organizing of a large high-level staff. Typically, statewide office in Pennsylvania is only achieved after years of experience in local government or the General Assembly. Yet, Kane had never ran for any office or served in any capacity at the state level before her election.
Bad political judgment: Kane exhibited poor political judgment almost from the beginning, early on shutting down a promising corruption investigation, awkwardly threatening to sue a Philadelphia paper 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 — particularly hurt her, leaving the impression she was politically motivated as well as lacking prosecutorial discretion. The appearance of blatant partisanship was even more evident in her handling of the porn email scandal that engulfed her office — initially releasing only the names of individuals with ties to Fina and former attorney general and Gov. Tom Corbett.
Political enemies: Kane in office embodied what one political scientist has called the “paranoid style in American politics.” But she did accumulate some real political enemies as well. Kane believed the state’s male dominated political establishment was threatened by her historic victory as the first elected female attorney general in the state. While there is little evidence of a conspiracy against her, one still has to ask if a man in the office, especially one tied to the old boys’ network, would be in this kind of trouble. The charge that first unhorsed her — leaking testimony from a grand jury — is common and rarely prosecuted. Former Gov. Ed Rendell has pointed out the farcical nature of the charges against her, noting that the grand jury recommendation to indict her was itself leaked.
In the end, Kane’s political demise was death by a thousand cuts. Lack of experience in high office, aggravated by bad judgment, a temperament ill-suited for state politics, and the tendency to make enemies early and often doomed her.
Like the classic Greek tragedy she embodies, it is hard to see how her story could have turned out differently. That for Kathleen Kane is the biggest tragedy of all.