HARRISBURG - Insiders called it Kathleen G. Kane's "nuclear option."
Last week, the first-term attorney general dropped the political and governmental bombshell: She released dozens of pornographic and sexually explicit e-mails that she said were exchanged by top state officials over state computers and during work hours between 2008 and 2012.
The recipients include scores of current or former state employees, though Kane's office released just eight names. Two are in Gov. Corbett's cabinet.
The scandal swiftly picked up the nickname Porngate and is poised to engulf the Capitol like few in recent years. By Friday, both the governor and the head of the state Supreme Court were demanding to see the e-mails and who sent them. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille specifically asked for names of any jurists involved in trading pornographic e-mails, which he said could violate judicial ethics.
Kane has kept largely silent about the issue. In her only statement, she said she believes it is in the public's best interest to "have a good understanding of how its public servants conduct their business."
But the timing of the e-mail release - after a nearly yearlong public feud with former prosecutors in the office, and as Corbett heads into the stretch of a reelection bid - seems likely to ensure that the scandal only spreads.
"This raises more questions than it answers," said political pollster and analyst G. Terry Madonna. "It opens up a Pandora's box: Are there more people involved? Who are they? Who instigated this?"
He added: "How are we to make a judgment about this when there is so much we don't know? She needs to make everything public."
Her critics' biggest complaint is that Kane, a Democrat, released the names of only eight people involved in the e-mail exchanges - all former employees of her office when it was run by Corbett, a Republican now trying to claw his way to reelection in less than six weeks.
Her office has acknowledged that there were others who participated in the e-mail exchanges, including 30 current employees of her office, but said she could not release their names for various reasons, or even say how many people were involved.
On Friday, Kane spokeswoman Renee Martin told The Inquirer the office "has given everything we have that we can give you at this point."
She would not elaborate.
The sampling of emails - which include photographs and graphic videos of sex, oral sex and anal sex - were released after several media outlets, including The Inquirer, requested all the material as public records under the state's Right-to-Know. Kane had initially denied the newspapers' requests, saying the messages were not public record, but changed course late last week.
Among those who received or sent the e-mails were State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan; state Department of Environmental Protection chief E. Christopher Abruzzo; former Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley; Glenn Parno, now an attorney in the DEP; Chris Carusone, Corbett's onetime liaison to the legislature; Randy Feathers, a Corbett appointee on the state Board of Probation and Parole; Richard Sheetz, the former head of the Attorney General's criminal law division; and Pat Blessington, a onetime top prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office who now works for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.
All but Feathers either declined to discuss the e-mails or did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Feathers said that the graphic messages were "not a reflection of my professional behavior" and that he did not condone such activity.
There has been no suggestion that exchanging such e-mails was illegal. But, in a policy instituted by Corbett when he ran the office, employees of the attorney general are prohibited from using computers to access, download, or distribute chain letters, unsolicited mass mailings, political and other fund-raising appeals, or "sexually suggestive, pornographic or obscene material."
Offenders could face punishments including termination and "legal action and criminal liability," the policy states.
Several people close to Kane said her reason for releasing the images was simple: The material was offensive, and using state resources to view it was wrong.
"These guys, they felt they answered to no one," said one person close to Kane who did not want to be identified discussing such a sensitive personnel matter. "Imagine what would have happened if someone found out that she knew about this and kept it secret."
The reality may be more complex.
Kane has been embroiled in a nasty and increasingly public feud with top prosecutors who worked for Corbett when he ran the Attorney General's Office.
It started during her campaign in 2012, when she ran on a promise to review the Sandusky case, though Sandusky had been convicted and jailed. The feud exploded into public view after The Inquirer reported in March that Kane had shut down a sting investigation that captured five Philadelphia Democrats on tape accepting cash, money orders, or gifts from an undercover operative posing as a lobbyist.
The investigation had started under Corbett in 2009 and was run by Frank Fina, the former chief deputy attorney general, who handled the office's biggest cases, including Sandusky's.
Since that time, Fina and Kane have been locked in a bruising war that over the summer culminated with Castille authorizing a special prosecutor to investigate if Kane's office leaked secret grand jury information, an offense punishable by up to six months in prison.
Sources have told The Inquirer that as part of the probe, Kane's critics have alleged that her office has used the threat of releasing the pornographic e-mails as a way to intimidate and silence.
Fina has declined to comment on the matter, citing grand jury secrecy.
What is known is that Fina, who now works for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, tried to block the release of the e-mails after several newspapers filed Right-to-Know requests for them. It is not known why Fina sought to do so.
Sources have said that he was among those who received the e-mails, although his was not one of the eight names released by Kane's office last week.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), one of the legislature's most conservative voices, said Friday that Kane's release of the names raised red flags. Metcalfe, who this year held an impeachment hearing on Kane, said Kane should have released all of the information rather than put out names piecemeal.
"On the surface, it looks very partisan," Metcalfe said. "Her excuses for not making some of this information available is kind of baffling."
Metcalfe noted that Noonan, among the eight who received the e-mails, is in the middle of "a historic manhunt" for Eric Frein, accused of killing a state trooper and wounding another before fleeing into the woods.
"If she is holding back names, she could have held his name back until this is over," Metcalfe said.
Chuck Ardo, the onetime spokesman for former Gov. Ed Rendell, countered that Kane has had to walk a fine line in dealing with a sensitive issue, and that there was not much she could have done differently to avoid being attacked as a partisan.
"The fact of the matter is that they worked in a Republican administration, and all of them happened to be Republicans," said Ardo. "There is no way she can make that bipartisan. The facts are what the facts are."