Over the last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane has stumbled from one professionally damaging matter to another.

Now she faces another obstacle - and potentially the biggest yet.

Early this year, a statewide grand jury meeting in Norristown is expected to decide whether the onetime rising political star violated prosecutorial rules by leaking secret information to embarrass her enemies.

For Kane, the stakes are high: The grand jury could go so far as to recommend criminal charges, putting her in the awkward position of defending herself against allegations that she broke the law while serving as the state's top enforcer of law.

Even supporters acknowledge that the next few weeks could mark a make-or-break moment in her career. The risks range from a written rebuke, to being found in contempt of court, to a criminal charge of obstructing justice.

"The next few weeks will be a turning point for her," said John Morganelli, the Democratic district attorney in Northampton County in the Lehigh Valley. "If it ends in a contempt citation by a judge, it may not be devastating. But if there are crimes-code violations, that could be problematic."

Kane, a Democrat, has acknowledged that her office released information about a grand jury case run by her Republican predecessors. But she has contended that the information was not confidential grand jury material.

She has also strongly suggested that the leak investigation is aimed at destroying her politically.

"I am fighting for an end to abuse of the criminal justice system," Kane said in November, as she was heading in to the grand jury to testify. "If this can be done to me as attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the fifth-largest state in the country, I am sickened to think what can and may be done to regular, good people."

The leak inquiry was authorized in the summer by former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a Republican. The grand jury meets in secret, and, in an unusual move, witnesses before the panel have been ordered not to discuss their testimony publicly, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The Inquirer has learned that a number of former high-ranking officials in Kane's administration have testified, including her former first deputy, Philadelphia lawyer Adrian King, and her onetime chief operating officer, David Tyler. Howard Bruce Klein, the attorney for Linda Dale Hoffa, another former top Kane aide, declined comment.

In the main, people familiar with the matter say, the grand jury is examining how internal documents from a 2009 grand jury investigation led by the Attorney General's Office ended up being cited in a Philadelphia Daily News story this past June.

Expanded inquiry

The investigation involved alleged financial improprieties by J. Whyatt Mondesire, the former president of the Philadelphia NAACP. It was overseen by then-state prosecutor Frank G. Fina, with whom Kane has been locked for months in a bitter and tangled dispute over how certain cases were handled.

The grand jury has expanded its inquiry to examine Kane's decision in the fall to release the names of eight men who traded pornographic e-mails on state time, The Inquirer has learned. All eight had ties to Fina.

Kane's political star began to dim last year after The Inquirer reported that she had shut down a sting investigation launched by Fina, even though the undercover operation had caught public officials on tape accepting cash. To some, the story in the Daily News seemed designed to strike a counterblow at Fina.

In a mirror image of the criticism Kane has sustained over the sting, the newspaper article suggested that Fina had failed to aggressively pursue the Mondesire matter.

Fina was among scores of current or former staffers in the Attorney General's Office who exchanged sexually explicit e-mails, and Kane has been intent on naming him in connection with that, as she did with the eight officials, The Inquirer has reported.

But sources say the judge supervising the leak inquiry issued an order several months ago effectively barring Kane from citing Fina's name publicly. The judge did so after Fina and others argued that Kane was using the threat of releasing the e-mails to intimidate them.

A year of controversy

After a landslide victory in 2012 that made her the first woman and first Democrat elected attorney general in the state, Kane swiftly built a national reputation in her first year in office for her stands in favor of gay rights and gun control.

Her second year, though, was marked by controversy over the sting, her retractions of public statements, and repeated shake-ups of her staff. Amid that, she could not point to any high-profile convictions to change the subject: The Pennsylvania Turnpike pay-to-play corruption case she announced with fanfare early in office fizzled late last year without any defendant receiving a jail sentence.

While admitting the disclosure of information to the Daily News, Kane - who declined comment for this article - has said the material was passed on "in a way that did not violate statutory or case law regarding grand jury secrecy."

Her contention: that Pennsylvania law has no statute that binds an attorney general to grand jury secrecy. Indeed, the state law establishing investigative grand juries makes no mention of the attorney general. Rather, it imposes secrecy rules on the participants in the jury room, and it names them - "juror, attorney, interpreter, stenographer," adding: "All such persons shall be sworn to secrecy, and shall be in contempt of court if they reveal any information which they are sworn to keep secret."

One of Kane's lawyers, Lanny J. Davis, has noted that when the Mondesire grand jury was in session in 2009 - and participants swore secrecy oaths - Kane was a stay-at-home mom.

"It is our legal opinion that there has never been a case decided where a succeeding attorney general has been accused of violating an oath that she never took," Davis said in an interview late last year.

Beyond that, Kane contends that she authorized only a very limited disclosure of information to the Daily News: a document related to a review she launched last March examining how Fina dealt with the Mondesire allegations in 2009. Mondesire, who has denied any wrongdoing, was not charged in the inquiry, which ended years ago.

Overzealous staff?

Yet the article also quoted heavily from a 2009 internal memo detailing allegations against Mondesire. Kane maintains she has no idea how that particular document got to the newspaper. In effect, she is suggesting that perhaps overzealous members of her staff may have erred in putting together the information given to the newspaper.

Finally, Kane's allies are questioning the very legality of the investigation, saying no explicit statute permits such a leak investigation.

Castille has rejected this argument, citing among other things a state law that gives the high court the broad power to "cause right and justice to be done."

Nor are such leak inquiries unprecedented. The high court has authorized them at least twice before. In a 2007 case, the investigation led to the jailing of an investigator from the Attorney General's Office.

G. Terry Madonna, the political analyst, says any finding that Kane broke the law would be devastating to her image. Her post is closely tied to issues of character and integrity, Madonna said.

"You are innocent until proven guilty," he said. "But she is the state's top law enforcement officer. Any way you frame it, she is going to be in an extraordinarily tenuous position."

acouloumbis@phillynews.com 717-787-5934 @AngelasInk