It's been a while since I've seen folks as worked up about a local story as the case of Attorney General Kathleen Kane and the botched sting of local lawmakers. Even though I've already blogged this two or three times in the last week (check it out here and here and here), people keep tweeting and emailing me non-stop, determined to shoehorn this story into their ideology -- and want everyone else to agree with them. For Pennsylvania conservatives -- who, in fairness, have been given a lot to work with here -- the story is somewhere between Watergate and the birth of Jesus; for liberals, Kane and the lawmakers who were taped accepting gifts from a lobbyists were set up in a kind of a black-op by allies of Gov. (and former Attorney General) Tom Corbett.
The truth of the story isn't complicated -- it just won't fit in the box that everyone is determined to shove it into.
Let's get real here:
1) The bottom line, as I wrote on Day One, is the moral poverty of the Philadelphia Democratic machine, and one-party rule in a city that has the highest rate of deep poverty in America, where middle-class folks need tireless defenders of a social safety net, expanded Medicaid, voting rights and common sense gun laws -- and instead get political hacks on the prowl for white envelopes full of cash. The four lawmakers accused of taking money from the so-called lobbyist Tyron Ali need to be investigated by their House colleagues, and, if necessary, expelled. Then lawmakers need to pass the nation's toughest ban on all gifts to elected officials. if they can't do those things, they should ALL be voted out.
2) There are no good guys, here -- and if there is an investigation of the lawmakers and current AG Kane, then there also must, must be an investigation of the highly questionable activities of the lead prosecutor on the sting, Frank Fina, and some of his deputies. Arguably the worst move in this entire disgraceful caper was their decision to drop all fraud charges against Ali, a man whose alleged crime -- absconding $430,000 that was supposed to feed poor children and senior citizens. Ali's actions were worse than what the lawmakers were accused of. More broadly, what was their real intention, looking at the way this so-called sting was set up, in the first place? Was it indeed a time-bomb to blow up in Kane's face?
My colleague John Baer, who's the straightest shooter covering Pa. politics that I know, put this out there last week:
A source says departing state prosecutors who handled Sandusky likely sought to "welcome" Kane by handing her a case that amounted to nice big bowl of eff-you.
If Kane prosecutes, she probably loses because the case could fall under entrapment or selective prosecution. If Kane punts, as she ultimately did, she looks like she's refusing to do her job for political reasons.
"Masterful," is the way another source described this conjectured plan.
When I contact Fina, all he says for publication is, "I'm watching and listening."
Many of the facts here back up that scenario, beginning with the otherwise unfathomable dropping of charges against Ali. Also, in several of the taped conversations, Ali links giving cash to either voting for -- or against -- the voter ID law, a measure that were pretty much a slam dunk for black Democratic lawmakers who universally opposed it. Why, so illogically, choose that bill? Were Corbett's allies also hoping to broadly taint the opposition to voter ID? You have to wonder.
3) So if Kane was set up with "a nice big bowl of eff-you," then she deserves our sympathy, right?
Look, her handling of this matter has not been good from from Day One. (I'm not a lawyer, but why not charge the four lawmakers and a judge with failure to report the gifts, attack the weakness of Pennsylvania's ethics laws, and later speak out about the lame case she was handed, at the appropriate time?) We don't know how much of Kane's initial awkwardness was inexperience and how much was shameful kowtowing to the Philadelphia Democratic machine, which is why there needs to be an aggressive and independent investigation of every aspect of this.
But late last week Kane took a bad situation and made it completely intolerable.
When she marched into the Inquirer offices last week with famed libel lawyer Richard Sprague as her mouthpiece, she reached a level of hypocrisy that I did not think it was possible for an American politician to reach in my lifetime. It starts with an attorney general who on Sunday says that criticism of her is "the Good Ol' Boys club playing political games," then on Thursday lets the CEO of that boys' club, Sprague, do 100 percent of the talking for her.
But there's a bigger issue than that. Ever since the 1970s, Sprague has been at the vanguard of a ridiculously successful crusade here in Philadelphia that has one goal above all: To use libel laws and a favorable judicial climate to chill serious investigative reporting about the city's political elites and the well-connected. And while there's been some very good and very courageous journalism in Philadelphia in spite of that, the threat of libel suits has been more successful in killing more legitimate stories than most journalists in this town are willing to admit. That's tragic.
The notion of libel in this story is absurd -- the Inquirer would have had to knowingly print false information about Kane, a public figure -- but Kane's appearance with Sprague has to be seen for what it was: A clumsy attempt to bully and intimidate the newspaper away from further tough reporting. That's beyond troubling. With her actions, Kane has done something that's unconscionable for an attorney general -- sided against the 1st Amendment and against a free press -- and even worse, she's sided with the elites and, yes, "the Good Ol' Boys club," against the common people she was elected to serve.
Can Kane redeem herself? I don't know. In her own not particularly communicative way, she's been on the right side of some issues like gay marriage and environmental protection, and I hope she continues with this. But can she be forgiven?
Not by me.
So I'll say again what I said last week: That while every political person who touched this story (except, go figure, Rep. Angel Cruz) is a loser, the biggest losers are the unintended ones: The voters of Pennsylvania. Good luck stuffing the truth into your ideological box.