The state Supreme Court on Wednesday suspended former state prosecutor Frank Fina from practicing law for a year and a day, ruling that he violated ethical rules in his investigation of Pennsylvania State University’s former president for covering up child abuse.
The suspension was a harsh blow for Fina, 54, who had won a degree of fame for his aggressive and successful prosecution of a string of corrupt politicians but became entangled in controversy over the Penn State probe and an unrelated conflict with former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
By a 6-0 vote, with one justice not participating, the high court found that Fina acted improperly in turning Cynthia Baldwin, the former chief counsel for Penn State, into a witness against the university’s then-president, Graham B. Spanier, and two administrators.
Fina’s actions, they found, violated rules stipulating that defense lawyers should not testify against clients.
On Wednesday, the high court also imposed a lesser penalty on Baldwin, who once briefly sat as a justice on the Supreme Court. It ordered her to face a public reprimand before the state’s disciplinary board for lawyers.
Baldwin served as the lawyer for Penn State, as well as for Spanier and the two top aides, during Fina’s 2012 investigation into how the school dealt with reports that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had molested children.
Nonetheless, Fina called her as a witness against Spanier and administrators Gary Schultz and Tim Curley before an investigative grand jury.
Baldwin has said she originally thought that the three and Penn State were all on the same page in saying the university and its officials had acted properly in response to allegations against Sandusky. She said she later realized the men had “duped" her.
Speaking of Spanier, she told the grand jury: “He is not a person of integrity. He lied to me.”
Fina has said he carefully tailored his questioning of Baldwin to avoid queries that impinged on Baldwin’s role as a defense lawyer. Two Common Pleas Court judges agreed in separate opinions that Fina had acted properly.
In 2016, the state Superior Court disagreed. It issued a sharp ruling chastising Fina, and saying his misconduct forced it to throw out the most serious felony perjury charges against Spanier and the administrators.
Prompted in part by a complaint from an outspoken Penn State alumnus, the state’s disciplinary board for lawyers then investigated Fina’s handling of the probe. A board panel cleared him, but the full body ignored that, instead urging that the state Supreme Court impose discipline.
As the highest-profile prosecutor with the Attorney General’s Office, Fina won more than two dozen convictions of elected state officials and aides, both Republican and Democratic, in probes that exposed schemes to award taxpayer-paid bonuses to campaign workers and spend millions of public dollars on campaign software. Among those convicted were two former speakers of the state House. He also launched an undercover sting that led to the conviction of five more politicians and a no-contest plea from a sixth, all from Philadelphia.
He played key roles in both the investigations of Sandusky — now serving at least a 30-year sentence after he was convicted of molesting 10 boys — and of Spanier and his two aides.
The three administrators were charged with covering up the coach’s conduct. After the Superior Court wiped out the felony charges, the two pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Spanier was convicted at trial, but the verdict was overturned on appeal by a federal judge who ruled that the statute used in prosecution was not applicable when Spanier was Penn State’s president.